A common joke with Southerners about running yellow lights is that “yellow means GO FASTER!” Actually, a yellow light means “yield.” And running yellow lights can be quite dangerous. In most cases, the general rule of thumb should be that if you can safely stop, you should. This is the response that leaves the smallest room for error or collision. However, sometimes you don’t have enough time to stop. Being aware as you approach an intersection can prevent you from running lights. Also, traveling at a safe speed will allow you to react responsibly to yellow lights. And finally, don’t ever drive while drowsy or distracted.

Running Yellow Lights: What You Need to Know about Yielding

Know the Rules in Your State

Some states treat running yellow lights differently than others. In some areas of the country, if you are safely able to come to a stop, you are required to do so. Sometimes, you can get a ticket if you entered the intersection when it was yellow and were still in it when the light turned red. In North Carolina and several other states, you can legally run a yellow light as long as you enter the intersection while the light is still yellow. However, the safest option for everybody is to safely stop on yellow if it’s possible to do so. Some of the most dangerous traffic accidents occur when drivers speed up to make a yellow light but miscalculate and end up actually running the red light. They can collide with oncoming traffic at a very high rate of speed.

Be Aware of the “Dilemma Zone”

The “Dilemma Zone” is the area of the road about 2.5-5.5 seconds away from the intersection. In this zone, you have between a 10-90% chance of being able to stop safely before running yellow lights. If the light stays yellow for too short a time span, you can’t stop completely before entering the intersection or get all the way through it before red. If the light stays yellow long enough, this dilemma zone technically goes away. However, drivers are only human. We react in panic sometimes when given a split second to make decisions. Therefore, as you approach an intersection, be aware of the dilemma zone. As you get nearer, prepare for what you’ll do if the light turns yellow. Once you reach a point where you can’t stop safely, commit to going through the intersection. Don’t let the light change cause you indecision or hesitation.

Travel at the Intended Speed

The posted speed limit is what traffic engineers use to determine the length of time for a yellow light. They carefully consider how long drivers will need to prevent running yellow lights. If you are traveling much faster than the intended speed, you may not be able to stop safely before the intersection or get completely through it before the light is red. When the light is red for your side, it turns green for other directions of traffic. This is when collisions can occur.

Never Drive Distracted or Drowsy

Finally, running yellow lights is much more avoidable if you are alert on the road. Never drive when you are drowsy or nodding off. Likewise, glancing at your phone or having other distractions can make it harder to stop safely on yellow. If you are looking at your cell when the light changes, by the time you look up you might have missed your opportunity to stop safely. As a result, you could end up running a red light or causing an accident.

The bottom line is that it’s best to avoid running yellow lights altogether. The yellow light is only an indication that the light is about to turn red, so you should make every effort to stop before that happens. Always keep a decision running in the back of your mind as you approach an intersection. Know how you will react if the light suddenly changes. Always travel at the rate of speed intended by the traffic engineers by following posted speed limits. And finally, never drive distracted or sleepy. Being a good defensive driver means protecting fellow travelers on the road. One of the ways you can do this is by safely handling yellow lights as you approach intersections.