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Flashing Yellow Lights Contribute to Portland Intersection Accidents

Whenever there’s a Portland intersection accident, it’s logical to assume that two people tried to share the same road space at the same time, and clearly, one of them got it wrong. Or did they? More and more, Portland drivers are arguing that the old system of solid red, yellow and green traffic signals were simple and safer than the new flashing yellow lights that unexpectedly go to solid yellow, seemingly without warning.

Flashing Yellow Lights: Help or Hindrance?!?

The question is, do flashing yellow lights ease gridlock or do they merely create confusion among drivers? Well, statistically, they seem to be doing their job, but you know what they say about statistics.

Since 2009, Washington County has taken out 372 of the old-fashioned signals and replaced them with sets of lights that include the pulsing amber left-turn arrows. Here are some of the reactions.

“They relieve gridlock and promote safe turning,” said Washington County transportation spokeswoman Victoria Saager.

Peter Koonce, the city of Portland’s signals manager, appeared to agree when he said the flashing yellows mean “You can enter the intersection,” which would, theoretically, reduce some of the traffic back-up at busy intersections.

Not so fast! Tigard traffic officer Rod Morse contradicted Koonce when he said that entering the intersection before it’s safe to turn would amount to what he called grid locking, or unlawfully obstructing traffic.

David House, a spokesman for Portland’s Driver and Motor Vehicle Services office, admitted the laws need to be tuned up a bit, and in the meantime he advises drivers to stop at the line. “It’s the safest approach,” House said.

How will flashing yellow signals prevent gridlock then? If the people making the laws and installing the lights can’t agree, what chance do the road users have of avoiding another Portland intersection accident?

A 16-year-old recently went for his road test after passing a driver’s ed course at Riverdale High. During the test, the young man pulled slowly into an intersection as a yellow arrow flashed. Then before he could complete the turn, the light turned from flashing yellow to red, and the DMV examiner immediately issued the driver with an automatic fail for making a hazardous turn at a red light. The boy was upset. His mother was confused.

“Who’s right?” she asked, and she’s an experienced driver who personally told her son it was all right to pull into the intersection when the yellow light was flashing.

Even the lawmakers seem to disagree. For example:

  • The Oregon Driver manual says that when a protected turn is ending and a signal is about to turn red, drivers shouldn’t enter the intersection if it’s safe to stop.
  • The same manual, however, says that when a turn light is flashing yellow, drivers need only yield to pedestrians and oncoming traffic. It makes no mention of not entering the intersection.
  • And ORS 811.260 just says that a driver may proceed “only with caution.” It doesn’t elaborate beyond that instruction.

The irony of all this is that these flashing yellow signals were initially designed to eliminate confusion for left-turning drivers. The argument was that Portland intersection accidents were being caused by drivers who thought they could make a left turn when they had a green light rather than yielding to oncoming drivers. The thinking was that the flashing yellow would warn them that they had to yield before making the turn.

How do you know when a flashing yellow is going to turn to solid yellow?

It might be easier to pick the winning lottery numbers than to accurately predict when flashing signals are going to change.

The fact is there’s no definitive answer to that question, because the people who have designed the system have set it up for the lights to change at different intervals, depending on traffic conditions. Drivers can’t even count on an average number of flashes before a light changes to solid. In reality, every signal could be different, because the following factors can all affect how they operate:

  • Time of day
  • Traffic volume
  • Location of the signal
  • Gaps in traffic

The only requirement for flashing lights at the moment relates to the length of time between when the arrow stops blinking and when it turns red. Regulations set that time limit at from three to six seconds, so even that is not something drivers hoping to avoid a Portland intersection accident can count on absolutely.

Officials now recognize that unsure drivers often fear that a flashing yellow left-turn signal will be their only chance to make the turn, so they try to rush through gaps that are simply too small. Or, they pull into intersections and block the traffic that should be getting through from doing so. This can cause everything from fender benders to road rage, to a certain citation if traffic control officers spot you, because blocking traffic in an intersection is illegal in any case.

The best advice a Portland accident attorney can give is, if you’re unsure, stay behind the line and wait for your light to go green. This is about the only sure way to avoid getting a traffic ticket and to avoid a Portland intersection accident. That flashing yellow light will turn green…eventually.

Clearly, confusion reigns in this complicated area, so much so that not even the lawmakers can agree on how the flashing lights should be interpreted by drivers. Until the issues are clarified and systems made more uniform, intersection accidents will continue to happen, and unfortunately, people will continue to be injured.

If you’ve been injured in an accident like this, you may have several avenues open to you for filing a personal injury claim. Call a recognized Portland personal injury lawyer for a free consultation. They will listen to your story and explain how to go about getting the compensation you deserve. You might be able to file a claim without the services of an attorney, but take advantage of the free consultation before making up your mind.