It’s a Stop Light, Not a Go Light


Witnesses said a recent double-injury accident near my home occurred because the guilty party had run a yellow light.

Since then I’ve been watching our driving habits. We’re out there running on yellow like crazy.

Actually, police traffic experts say, it’s not the yellow lights we’re running--it’s the red lights. They’re yellow only during the split-second we’ve decided to gun the engine and go for it.


“It’s not against the law to run a yellow light,” pointed out Lloyd Edwards, traffic office director for Huntington Beach police.

But disrespect for yellow sometimes can lead to accidents. The experts seem to agree on this: If the car ahead of you runs on yellow, you should have enough time to safely stop. But that’s not the norm here: I’ve seen at least four cars try to squeeze through on yellow.

Why do we insist on taking the risk?

“It’s the Southern California lifestyle,” said Sgt. Kenneth Coovert, Buena Park Police’s chief traffic officer. “We’re all in a hurry.”

The police’s little secret is that almost every city in Orange County has four-way reds. That means there is anywhere from one to three seconds when all four traffic sides have a red light, to help clear the intersection.

Problem is, many drivers have figured that out, so it tempts them even more to run on yellow (or red, as the police point out).

What some of us need to do, Coovert suggests, is change our whole attitude about driving.

“Just step back and relax a little bit,” he said. “Make up your mind to add a little extra time to get where you’re going.”

Talking to these experts, however, has forced me to give grudging respect to those who do run freely on yellow.

For example, it always leaves me steaming when I’m trying to make a left-hand turn on yellow, but some joker from oncoming traffic runs the yellow light, leaving me hanging in never-never land. To my surprise, the experts say that oncoming driver has the right-of-way.

“The exception is, if that driver speeded up to make the yellow,” Edwards said. “Then an accident would be that driver’s fault, because your depth perception couldn’t see him speeding up.”

Another example: Lt. Ted Labahn of the Anaheim Police Department cautioned me not to be so quick to blame accidents on those who run the yellow. That’s because some drivers coming the side direction try to time their approach to an intersection so they never have to stop before it turns green. If you’re entering an unclear intersection at 45 miles an hour, that can mean a nasty collision.

Labahn passed on one of the greatest driving tips I’ve ever heard:

“If you’re stopped first at the light and it turns green, take just a moment and look to your left before you go,” he said. “Just make it a habit. It could save your life.”

Sadly, he had a perfect example. Perhaps you read a few weeks ago about the mother taking her child to school in Anaheim. She was killed as she pulled off a side street at a light onto Euclid Avenue. Police told the news media at the time it appeared the driver on Euclid had run a red light. (In other words, gunned it on yellow.)

The Euclid driver seemed to be in the wrong. But if the mother on the side street had heard Labahn’s advice--just take a good look to the left first, her closest traffic--she might well be alive today.

Try it driving home from work tonight. At every light, when you’re first, look before you go.

It only takes a second or two.