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Engineers Say Yellow Traffic Lights Should Shine Longer

The Law Office of Joel M. Bacher Oct. 24, 2019

Between green-for-go and red-means-stop, traffic lights pass through the under-appreciated yellow light. Motorists might assume the time these lights stay yellow is fixed by federal or New Jersey law, or by the laws of physics, or by societal norms.

In fact, that little amber interlude is a battleground, inspiring lawsuits, political controversy, scientific debates and budgetary disputes, perhaps especially in New Jersey. But a new recommendation from an influential association of transportation engineers may signal a change.

New Jersey Has a History of Yellow-Light Controversy

From 2008 to 2014, some New Jersey towns and cities took part in a pilot program by installing cameras (sometimes called “gotcha” cameras or camera traps) at intersections controlled by traffic lights. Each camera automatically imaged cars that were still in the intersection when its traffic light went red.

The program generated controversy, lawsuits and, some claimed, windfalls for local budgets. Much debate focused on the accuracy of the cameras, while others asserted some yellow lights were illegally timed short to trap drivers into running red lights.

ITE Wants Yellow Lights to Stay Yellow Longer

The federal Department of Transportation gives the job of developing science-based standards to a group of scientific and engineering specialists.

The views of the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) matter. And they say yellow lights are too short.

Their panel of experts used calculations based on the classical laws of physics to show that drivers were unable to stop in time under ITE’s existing recommendations, especially when trying to take left or right turns just before lights turn red.

The calculations focused on the “zone of dilemma,” when the driver sees the light go from green to yellow and must decide whether to stomp the brakes before entering the intersection or try to blaze through the yellow before it goes red.

The ITE says it’s clear it previously had the wrong idea about the zone of dilemma and will now have to choose just the right recommendations to make.

Despite the current uncertainty among experts, New Jersey motorists must obey the old law as it stands and hope law enforcements treats them fairly, given the unsettled circumstances.