Regular Doses of Common Sense™

Danger Ahead: The Flashing Yellow Arrow

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Apparently convinced that South Carolina drivers aren’t already bad enough, the state’s Department of Transportation announced plans to introduce a new signal — the flashing yellow arrow — into the traffic mix. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Coming soon to an intersection near some of you: the flashing yellow arrow.

This may be one of the stupidest ideas ever forced into a traffic signal’s programming. The reason? Because this particular arrow means the opposite of what other arrow signal lights mean, and I can’t imagine the average driver understands its meaning when he can’t even figure out something as basic as a turn signal.

So picture with me those regular traffic signals (red, yellow and green) with a second column of lights — usually just a green and yellow arrow — to the left. Those arrows signal drivers making a left turn when they have the right of way.

If you’re making a left turn and you see a solid green arrow pointing to the left, you know that you have right of way to make a turn and that oncoming traffic has a red light. When that solid green arrow turns into a solid yellow arrow, you know to prepare to stop or to get out of the intersection if you’re already in it because that right of way extended to you is about to end and other traffic, either oncoming or perpendicular traffic will be entering the intersection.

Whether people choose to run that yellow light or not, they at least understand what the signal is trying to communicate.

The drawback is that when neither arrow is lit, drivers making a left turn don’t always make one when they see just see the green light, sometimes assuming that with no arrow, they can’t make any turn at all. (As a general rule in South Carolina, you can make a left turn even if no arrow is lit as long as you have a green light and no oncoming traffic is approaching as long as there’s no red light for the left turn lane or signage specifically banning turns without an arrow.) So drivers who aren’t fully aware of the rules just sit there causing a backup.

Sometimes, the highway department will post a separate traffic light just for the left-turn lane, which makes it clear whether you can turn because if you don’t have an arrow, you have a red light. Mystery solved.

But just when you thought it was safe to make a turn, here comes the flashing yellow arrow. This little gem of a bad idea is supposed to tell drivers that they can make a left turn, but only after waiting for oncoming traffic and pedestrians. This is the only time an arrow means that you don’t have right of way. One might suppose that the flashing will alert motorists that something is different, but one would be assuming a great deal of reasoning on the part of the average motorist.

I’m hoping this light won’t cause a lot of accidents from confusion over who does and who doesn’t have right of way. But I’m worried that this is exactly what’ll happen.

Does your community have a flashing yellow arrow signal in its traffic controls? Do you think this is a good idea?

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4 Comments on "Danger Ahead: The Flashing Yellow Arrow"

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Only the green arrow has the meaning of a protected movement. Arrows mean direction, not privilege.

The flashing yellow arrow has always had the same meaning: You may turn after yielding to oncoming traffic and pedestrians. The only difference is that before now, it was restricted to night flash mode.

There is a sign:

Great post – thank you! Unfortunately people always fall back to the “people must be idiots if they can’t figure it out” because yeah you can explain it however that is not the role of design. Design doesn’t have the opportunity to explain it to you and have you think about it. It has to be natural and instinctive and like you’ve pointed out the flashing yellow arrow breaks the design rules that have already been established as to what colors mean, what the shapes mean and what flahsing means. In our neighborhood they put up a flashing yellow arrow… Read more »
We’ve had these for ages. Everybody knows what they mean. A flashing yellow means that specific turns in crossing aren’t indicated with lights and drivers revert back to generic right-of-way rules and using common sense caution. Every traffic light has the capacity to switch to flashing yellow triggered by circumstances, usually a system malfunction, or because it’s night time. A lot of cities here switch traffic lights to blinking yellow at night when there is less traffic, so people don’t have to sit in red lights for no reason. It’s also more convenient in some intersections because you can turn… Read more »
Cathryn (aka Strange)

I’ve never seen such a light and if I did, I’d probably sit there staring at it while trying to figure out what it was supposed to mean!  What a stupid idea!  
Why don’t they just put up a sign that states that “Left turn signal.  Yield to green <green ball>” like they do in PA? comment image  <–click to see the sign I mean.
I think I’d think that a flashing yellow arrow might mean that it’s going to turn red soon and that I should stop!