Does this sound familiar? It seems like you've hit every red light and the person in front of you is creeping along, not even driving the speed limit. Just as you approach the first green light you've seen all day, it switches to yellow, and for a split-second you don't know if you should hit your brakes or step on the gas. Even as you press down on the accelerator, questions flood your mind: Should I have stopped? Will I make it through before the light turns red? Are there any police around?
That decision, whether to screech to a halt or speed through the light, could be the difference between a safe ride home and a trip to the hospital. Under the right circumstances, a yellow light is a cautionary signal that saves lives. But due to the lack of nationwide standards and dangerous intersection designs, yellow lights can be accident hotspots.
One of the main reasons for car accidents at intersections is what some call the "dilemma zone." Usually, if the light changes to yellow, a driver should stop unless it is unsafe to do so. The "dilemma zone" emerges when this decision is unclear and the driver doesn't know if it is safer to proceed or to stop.
With around 2,000 traffic fatalities occurring at intersections each year, it's clear that this isn't a small problem. Fortunately, new data from Oregon State University may provide a way to help better identify what factors turn a yellow light into a "dilemma zone."
The research found that varying speed limits and road designs make yellow light timings hard to guess for drivers already trying to factor in their driving speed and the distance between cars. The intersection traffic laws that vary wildly from state to state also play a large role in the accident rate. According to Pennsylvania law, "If you are driving toward an intersection and a yellow light appears, slow down and prepare to stop. If you are within the intersection or cannot stop safely before entering the intersection, continue through carefully."
However, in some states you must stop at a yellow light as long as it is safe to do so, while other states allow you to be in the intersection during a red light as long as the front of the car passed the stop line before the light switched to red. All of this can be difficult to remember and process while you're already concentrating on basic driving principles.
Experts hope that once they identify the problem areas they'll be able to create safer, more consistent intersections so that drivers know the right action to take. In the meantime, remember that it's always best to practice defensive driving, especially when faced with confusing or potentially dangerous situations.