The Cycle of Traffic Lights and What to do When They’re Flashing

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Understanding the Timing of Traffic Sign Lights and What Drivers Can Do When They Go Flashing

Question:  Why doesn’t the “Walk” light stay on longer? I can only get halfway across before it starts flashing!

Answer:  Since I know nothing of your physical condition, whether you’re 18 or 85 years old, I’ll assume you’re in average physical condition and should be able to make it across the street before the sign says “Don’t Walk.”

Traffic Walk Signal

Walk signs are timed by the light, so if there is a green light that stays green for, say, 30 seconds, then turns yellow for 3 seconds before turning red, you actually have about 33 total seconds. However, 15 seconds into that cycle, it may start flashing, and while that seems ominous, you still probably have at least 15 seconds to meander to the other side.

The flashing “Walk” sign is just a reminder to hurry up. You’ll also notice that most of these flashing walk signs flash faster as the time is reduced, adding to your urgency to get across. In our area, we’re now seeing a second countdown, starting at 15, which I think is pretty cool!

Question:  Why can’t the signals along a road be timed together to reduce delay?

Answer:  Ultimately you’ll need to talk to the traffic engineers at the city or county in which you reside if there is an issue, but I will say that most places I’ve lived, and I’ve lived in a few places, have the lights timed.

When I lived in Portland, OR, many moons ago, you could drive through downtown Portland and never hit a red light…if you went 17MPH. And that might be the rub. I know I like to get to the next light ASAP, so I tend to gun it and then end up waiting, but if you learn at what speed the traffic engineers have the signal lights timed at, you may find that indeed, they are timed. Maybe not the timing you’d prefer, but probably at about two-thirds of the speed limit.

Question:  What should drivers do when a traffic sign is flashing?

Answer:  To tell you the truth, I’ve never seen a traffic sign flashing. That reminds me, though, of a story about my sister, whose name will be withheld to protect the guilty.

When she took driver’s education training in about 1977, her instructor drove with her into Spokane, WA, from the small town she went to school in. They drove about, here and there through Spokane, he giving her instructions, and she driving. At one point in the lesson, she came to a STOP sign. She stopped. And waited. And waited. And waited. Finally, her instructor asked what she was waiting for. She answered that she was waiting for it to turn green!

Traffic Lighting

At any rate, I figure that was a good time for a story, since I’m not sure what you’re asking here. Traffic lights flash yellow. Construction lights on poles with signs flash orange-ish. Railroad crossing lights flash red. School zone signs flash yellow also.

If you see a traffic signal flashing yellow, I would suggest you stop before you run the red light. The tickets are nasty and expensive and raise your insurance rates.

If you see construction lights flashing, slow down. The same holds true for the tickets, except that in most states now, the traffic fines double in those areas.

And if you see railroad lights flashing, for God’s sake, stop! Preferably before you are on the tracks. I’m less worried about traffic tickets here than untangling your car a mile down the track.

Other areas with traffic sign lights? School zones often have flashing lights as you enter a school zone, telling  you that children and police officers are present. The tickets aren’t cheap in these zones either.

If you want cheap tickets, you’d have to move to a 3rd world country. In fact, you can likely bribe your way out of a ticket for $10-20, but the risks to life and limb are higher, or so they say.

Did that answer your question? Get here for more about various traffic sign markers.


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