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Yellow light conflicts: should I stay or should I go?

By: Ticket Lawyer on September 21, 2017


It’s a common occurrence. A green light suddenly turns yellow on your approach, at that perfect distance where it’s too close to brake without spilling your coffee (in its cupholder), but far enough that the light will probably turn red as you proceed through the intersection. You ask yourself, should I stay or should I go? If you stay by slamming on the brakes, are you endangering yourself, the people in the cars behind you, or pedestrians who may want to use the crosswalk if you can’t stop before the line? If you go, is there a left-turning vehicle on the opposite lane that could suddenly turn in front of your car? How can you avoid these potential yellow light conflicts?

The people who design and calibrate yellow light timers will generally allow enough time in an attempt to ensure these yellow light conflicts do not occur. Typically, intersections with traffic lights allow several seconds of yellow-light time, followed by a short period of time (a second or so) where all traffic lights are red to allow traffic to clear out of the intersection.

The question is not whether you can proceed through safely, but whether you can stop safely.

However, drivers must still make these split-second decisions every day. And picking the wrong choice can result in potentially fatal consequences. So, when you see a green light suddenly turn to yellow, when can you proceed and when must you stop?

Yellow light conflicts often result in crashes

In the vast majority of cases, yellow light conflicts involve a driver travelling straight through an intersection while another driver in the opposite lanes attempts to turn left, into the path of the vehicle going through. The resulting collisions can be serious or even fatal in some cases.

Often, the left-turning driver either didn’t see the approaching vehicle, or had assumed that the other driver would stop before entering the intersection. For the drivers of vehicles proceeding straight through the intersection, the issue is often that they felt they could not stop safely in time, or they were unable to see the left-turning vehicle in time to yield.

What the law says about yellow light conflicts

The two relevant areas of the BC Motor Vehicle Act that applies to yellow light conflicts are s. 128 and s. 174. S. 128 deals specifically with yellow lights, and states:

“The driver of a vehicle approaching the intersection and facing the yellow light must cause it to stop before entering the marked crosswalk on the near side of the intersection, or if there is no marked crosswalk, before entering the intersection, unless the stop cannot be made in safety”

S. 174 deals with drivers who are attempting to make a left turn, and states:

“When a vehicle is in an intersection and its driver intends to turn left, the driver must yield the right of way to traffic approaching from the opposite direction that is in the intersection or so close as to constitute an immediate hazard, but having yielded and given a signal as required by sections 171 and 172, the driver may turn the vehicle to the left, and traffic approaching the intersection from the opposite direction must yield the right of way to the vehicle making the left turn.”

So a few points here. If approaching an intersection, before crossing the line or entering an intersection, all drivers must stop if it’s safe to do so. If making a left turn on a yellow light, however, a left-turner already in the intersection must yield only if an approaching vehicle is also in the intersection, or are so close to the intersection that turning would be hazardous; otherwise, once the left-turning vehicle begins the turn, it’s actually the approaching vehicle on the opposite lanes that must yield.

Who has the right of way in yellow light conflicts?

Since the right of way changes depending on the circumstances of the incident, who must yield at what time is a point often discussed when these yellow light conflicts reach the court.

The two big questions posed are this:

  • did the driver of the left-turning vehicle take reasonable care to make sure no approaching vehicles were either in the intersection or were so close that they would be turning into a hazard?
  • regardless of whether the road is clear or not, did the approaching vehicle travelling through the intersection have enough time to stop when the light turned yellow?

Responsibilities of the left-turning vehicle in a yellow light conflict

The legislation is clear that the left-turning driver must be aware that approaching vehicle are hazards, and to take note of whether the oncoming vehicles are travelling too quickly to stop. As early as 1963, it was decided that “An immediate hazard exists if the oncoming vehicle must make a sudden or violent avoiding action to prevent a collision”.

The question is about judgement. How far away is the approaching vehicle? A few car-lengths? Half a block? Is there any approaching vehicle already in the intersection? Are there any oncoming cars that have already come to a stop, while other vehicles continue to approach? Are there any obstructions to your line of sight that would prevent you from seeing oncoming vehicles?

As the left turning vehicle, you do not have right of way until you are sure you can make a safe turn. But once you have properly determined you may make a safe turn, you receive the right of way as you make your turn.

This is important, because a case in 1996, Kokkinis v. Hall, determined that left-turning drivers do not have an obligation to wait until “all approaching drivers have stopped,” and that drivers approaching a yellow light “must expect” that left turning vehicles will proceed on the yellow light. A lot rides on the judgement of the left-turning driver.

Responsibilities of the approaching vehicle in a yellow light conflict

Perhaps it’s a reaction to the suggestion that some drivers see yellow lights as permission to accelerate, but the law often penalizes drivers who do not take every opportunity to stop safely as soon as the light changes to yellow. However, the rules are also easier to follow for approaching vehicles – just try and stop safely when a green light turns yellow.

In a 1996 case, a driver who entered an intersection to proceed straight through on a yellow light was only a few car lengths away when the light turned yellow. It was established that the driver was travelling at a reasonable speed, about 50 km/h, and did not notice the left-turning car until it was too late. What cost this driver the case was how another car travelling the same direction in an adjacent lane had already stopped. The court determined that the driver should have been able to stop instead of proceeding through the yellow light, since another driver – who had been ahead in traffic – was able to do so. This driver was found 100% at fault.

To the courts, it does not matter if the approaching driver was reasonably certain that the road ahead was clear when a light turns yellow. The question is not whether you can proceed through safely, but whether you can stop safely.

A driver found this out the hard way after a collision in 1990. This driver saw the road ahead was clear as she approached a green light from more than a block away. A witness suggested she was about 100 feet away from the intersection when the light turned yellow, and a left-turning vehicle drove into the intersection. The collision resulted in the left-turning car rolling over. The court found the driver of the oncoming car 100% liable, and said this about the driver:

“She ought to have realized the green light had been on for some time as she had seen it a block and a half before arriving at the intersection and ought to have realized it would be turning yellow and she should slow.”

In our view, that’s a bit harsh to suggest drivers should know when a green light will turn yellow, but this is what the courts have decided.

Liability of yellow light conflicts are difficult to determine

If it’s not clear by now, liability after a yellow light conflict can be affected by a series of factors that are not always controlled by the left-turning vehicle nor the approaching car. Both drivers have substantial obligations, and both drivers arguably had the right of way in the immediate seconds before or after a collision.

Only after assessing all of the different factors can something resembling a determination of liability be made, and even after these assessments, liability may still be split between the driver of the approaching vehicle and the driver of the left-turning vehicle.

It’s a tricky area of law. As it should be. Crashes resulting from yellow-light conflicts are among the most serious traffic accidents in terms of injury and death. If you were involved in a yellow light conflict, contact a BC Driving Lawyer. The first consultation is free, and perhaps we can make this murky area of law a bit more clear for you. 604-608-1200.