With the holiday season here again, and more and more people spending more and more time on the busy, bustling streets of our great cities, I’ve decided in the interest of safety and public service, that we need to talk about a few things that seem to confuse the average driver.  Namely, traffic lights.

Now, for the uninitiated, ‘traffic lights’ are the multicolored boxes that hang from wires or suspend from poles in the spots where two or more roads/streets meet – also called ‘intersections’.  Usually, traffic lights are reserved for ‘major intersections’, so you don’t typically see them in neighborhoods.  Traffic lights serve an important purpose, though I know that, for the most part, drivers tend to be wholly unaware of any such purpose.  I’m here to tell you -that purpose may be more important than you’ve ever understood before.

traffic_light_greenLet’s jump right in.  To the left, you can see a typical American traffic signal light.  The lights in your area may appear slightly thinner or wider, might be hanging from wires that crisscross an intersection, may be suspended from a pole or even sit atop a pole and may or may not have lights that face multiple directions like the one pictured – it all depends on the style of your area and what your cities purchase.

Now, I want to draw particular attention to the color of the traffic light in the image – it’s -green-.  Green means ‘go’.  When one of these traffic signals shows a bright green light (or a bright green arrow – but I don’t want to get into that right now and confuse you too much), it means that you have the right of way to cross the intersection.  There’s no need for you to stop (unless there’s some sort of emergency or heavy traffic clogging the intersection).

Got that? A green light means you can go?  Good.  I’m glad we’re all on the same page.  That was the simple part of all of this, so I’m glad to get past it so we can move on.

I’m gonna throw you a bit of a curve-ball now, though.  There is more than one color light on a traffic signal.

I know that you’re staring at the screen as if I’d just told you that the sky is purple and snow is made of snicker-doodles.  It’s okay – trust me, I’m not lying to you or teasing you or trying to pull a fast one here. There really are more than one color on a traffic signal.

traffic_light_yellowYellow, as seen in the image to the left, is the second color on the traffic light.  Recognize it now?  I’m sure you do, but you probably don’t know what it means.  You see, a yellow light on a traffic signal?  That means ‘slow down’ AND ‘prepare to stop’.

Again, I know you are staring at the screen, thinking that I’m pulling some sort of hoax on you, but I assure you that I’m not.  It really does mean ‘slow down’ and ‘prepare to stop’.  For most drivers, the yellow light means ‘step on the gas because I have to make the light’.  I’m here to tell you – that’s not what it means; that’s just an urban legend that’s built up around it over the years.

Take a minute, let that sink in – I know it’s a lot to take all at once.  Most people have lived their entire ‘driving lives’ under the impression that the green and yellow lights weren’t really that different, that both meant ‘go’, but the second meant ‘go fast oh my freaking god I have to make this light go go go!’, but it doesn’t.

Settled down a bit?  Good.  Because I’m not done.  As much of a shock as that was, there’s still one more color to discuss: Red.

traffic_light_redI know what you’re thinking; ‘Red = the ten second rule’, and you’re not alone.  For many drivers, red does mean ‘I’ve got at least ten more seconds to go through this intersection’.  Heck, look around you the next time you’re coming up on an intersection and the light turns red.  More likely than not, you won’t be the only one using those precious extra few seconds to fly through the intersection.

But, sadly, I’m here to tell you that you, and all those other folks in that intersection with you, are wrong.  Red doesn’t equal ‘ten more seconds to make it through the intersection’Red does, in fact, mean ‘STOP’.  When the traffic signal changes from yellow to red, you are expected to stop.

Believe it or not, it’s true.  Stop.

I know this is a lot to take in all at once, but with the holidays here and so many people out driving, I felt that it just couldn’t wait any longer.

Green: Go.

Yellow: Slow down and prepare to stop.

Red: Stop (now, not in ten seconds).

If you keep these three simple rules in mind, we’ll all have a happy, safe holiday season.

Now you know (And knowing is half the battle.)



  • Clifton Hill Posted December 18, 2009 5:33 pm

    Hmm…do I detect some recent frustration at the intersections of our fine country of late?

  • Caroline Posted December 19, 2009 5:01 pm

    Blinky lights, so pretty!

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