Yellow Lights = Dilemma Zone for Drivers

The area before a stop light-controlled intersection where the light turns yellow and drivers are unsure whether or not to proceed or stop is now being called the “dilemma zone.” Portland traffic accident injury attorneys also think of that area as a danger zone, because literally thousands of people all across the country are being killed in those areas every year.

Recently, an OSU study looked at the problems and possible solutions associated with this lethal phenomenon. Researchers are hopeful that they can more precisely identify danger zones, then marry that information to advanced technologies that can monitor the speed of oncoming traffic, as well as the vehicle’s distance from the intersection. When combined, yellow light timing should be improved to the point where drivers are far more certain of when to stop. And this, maintain the people from OSU, should save a lot of lives. They pointed to the following statistics:

  • More than 30,000 people are killed on American roads each year.
  • Of those 30,000, about one in every 15 occur in stoplight-controlled intersections. That’s 2,000 people every year.

OSU Assistant Professor of Transport Engineering David Hurwitz believes the crashes that lead to those 2,000 deaths can be greatly reduced. “We think those crashes can be reduced with a better understanding of exactly where the dilemma zone is and how traffic lights and other technology can be adjusted to help manage it,” he said. Hurwitz pointed to the large number of variables that contribute to the problems of any given dilemma zone. They include:

  • Driving speed
  • Distance from the intersection when the light turns yellow
  • Drivers’ skill levels
  • Laws regarding an approach to an intersection that can vary from state to state
  • Drivers who simply scoff at the law in the hopes of beating the red light
  • Drivers who actually want to do the right thing but aren’t sure what that is

With all these variables to address, researchers employed a tool called fuzzy logic, a means of producing more exact decisions even when using inexact data. They started with the basic dilemma; when a traffic light turns yellow, a driver must decide whether to stop or drive on. In most cases, drivers who are more than a certain distance from the light will stop, depending on their speed.

On the other hand, drivers who are closer to the intersection will often go ahead. These decisions, say researchers, are fairly easy. What the OSU research team wanted to find out was at one point did the decision on whether or not to proceed through the intersection become more difficult. That area is what they refer to as the dilemma zone, and it’s in this area that Portland traffic accident injury lawyers see cases where the wrong decision being made has often led to serious or even fatal consequences.

Unfortunately, it’s not just a simple matter of picking a distance from the intersection and marking it with big “D.Z.” letters to let drivers know they are in the dilemma zone. Hurwitz says that because laws vary widely from state to state, the decision can become even more complicated. For example:

  • In Oregon, the law requires that a driver stops on a yellow light if it is safe to do so.
  • In some states, it’s legal to proceed on a yellow light
  • In a few states, it’s even legal to proceed on a yellow light and still be in the intersection when the light turns red, providing only that the front axle of the vehicle had crossed the stop line prior to the light turning red.

Different laws lead to different driver behaviors, and without consistent, uniform national regulations regarding intersections, this problem will remain difficult to remedy. Drivers who feel they must stop as soon as the light turns yellow could find themselves the victim of a rear-end collision, whereas drivers who proceed or turn left while trying to beat a red light could face even more serious crashes such as head-on or T-bone collisions.

Another factor that creates confusion among drivers is the inconsistent length of time a light will remain yellow. It can vary greatly, depending on the speed limit in the area. Given all these variables, especially the differences in laws from state to state, Hurwitz says it is very difficult for even conscientious drivers to know the right thing to do.

The OSU findings have been published in two recent studies and are gaining national recognition and support. Hurwitz says using the information in their report to determine where the dilemma zone is for each intersection, then using available technology to make drivers’ decision-making process easier once the light turns yellow, they can improve safety on the roads. “We want drivers to know whether to stop or proceed…in a manner that is safe. This approach should help accomplish that, prevent accidents and save lives,” Hurwitz said.

In Oregon, we read stories on an all too regular basis where a driver, pedestrian or cyclist has been seriously injured or even killed at an intersection. It appears from the OSU research that the yellow light dilemma zone may have played a part in at least some of those unfortunate accidents. Portland traffic injury attorneys are determined to do whatever they can to help make Oregon roads safer, and they welcome the OSU initiative. They would also like to hear from anyone who has been injured in a Portland area yellow light dilemma zone or anywhere else on Oregon’s roads.