How Long Should A Traffic Light Remain In The Yellow Phase?

The duration of the yellow or amber light is critical for whether you receive a red light ticket. Most motorists enter an intersection when the light is yellow and on the verge of turning red. Shorter the yellow light time, the more likely that the motorist will end up falling short and running a red light.

How Long Does a Yellow Light Last?

In New York City, the Administrative Code requires that a traffic control device remain in the yellow phase for 2-3 seconds. This is a relatively short duration.

In contrast, the duration of a yellow light duration in California varies based on the speed limit but can be 4.2 seconds, and Texas requires a 4.7-second interval for the amber phase on roads with speeds of 50 mph and higher.

However, in New York, yellow lights are often set to last only about 3 seconds.  With the proliferation of red light cameras, a “quick” yellow leads to many more tickets being issued.

One diligent motorist was able to get a red light camera ticket thrown out recently in Glassboro, New Jersey.  The motorist timed the duration of the yellow light duration and found it to be only 3 seconds, despite New Jersey law requiring it to be 4 seconds. This led to 12,000 other red ligth camera tickets issued at this intersection being thrown out too.

My best advice is that, if you see yellow and you are not already in the intersection, hit your brakes. In my opinion, disobeying a red light is one of the motorist dangerous moving violations on the books. Cross traffic relies on the green light as a sign that the “coast is clear” and some very bad T-bone accidents occur when someone runs a red light.

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40 Comments. Leave new

  • Matthew, I recently got a red light camera ticket in Nassau county less than 0.3 seconds into a red light following a 3 second yellow interval in a 40mph zone. The county claims they make sure their yellow lights are in compliance with federal regulations, but according to the USDOT Federal Highway Administration publication FHWA-HOP-08-024 “Traffic Signal Timing Manual” from 2008, their calculated recommended yellow interval is around 3.9 seconds. What is the likelihood of successfully contesting this ticket based on this info?

    Reply
  • Matthew,
    Just want to follow up on e-scant’s question – what title, chapter and sub title would I find reference for duration of a yellow or amber light in the Administartive Guide?

    Reply
  • Matthew :
    Recenty received a ‘red light’ ticket with the yellow (amber) light still showing. The picture mailed to me shows me entering the intersection with the information bar at the top of the photo displaying the word AMBER 3.0, SPEED 028 and RTIME 000.8.. The photo shows the color of the light to be red. If the displayed information says AMBER, which is what I saw, why was there a citation issued? Thansk for your reply.
    Ted.

    Reply
    • Ted Z,

      Because the photo shows you disobeying a red light, I would think the “amber” designation is a mistake. The photo would govern, however, if you were to fight this ticket.

      Matthew Weiss

      Reply
  • Matthew:
    We got a red light camera ticket in Nassau County, NY. The federal MUCTD refers to another document that shows a table of minimum times for the yellow light depending on the speed limit on the road. The time for a 45-mph road is 4.3 seconds in the table. My “notice of liability” shows that the length of the yellow (amber) light is 4.0 seconds and the vehicle crossed the stop line 0.1 sec after the light turned red. I’d like to challenge the ticket on the grounds that the the yellow interval is shorter than the minimum standard and had it been set at the minimum, there would have been no violation. Will this work here? I understand this defense has been upheld in other parts of the country and governments forced to issue refunds for “short yellows”.

    Reply
  • Matthew –

    This morning, just as I was getting to an intersection the light turned yellow. I proceeded into the intersection but before I made it through it turned red. The spot has a red light camera (Bronx – 149th and Grand Concourse) although there is construction ongoing there and they may have turned it off temporarily. My question based upon reading above is as follows. I certainly went into the intersection when it was yellow, it was not red, but it turned red before I cleared the intersection. Will I get a red light ticket if I was simply in the intersection but went there in a yellow or do I have to only enter the intersection on red for a red light camera to work.

    My understanding with a ticket issued by a cop is that they have discretion to determine when you entered whether it was reasonable for you to make it all the way through, but how does it work with a red light camera?

    Reply
  • Hi Mr. Weiss,
    The MUTCD of the US Dept of transportation clearly states that that it is binding on ALL streets in the united states, and cites the FCR on page one.
    04 Traffic control signals, even when justified by traffic and roadway conditions, can be ill-designed, ineffectively placed, improperly operated, or poorly maintained. Improper or unjustified traffic control signals can result in one or more of the following disadvantages:
    Excessive delay,
    Excessive disobedience of the signal indications,
    Increased use of less adequate routes as road users attempt to avoid the traffic control signals, and
    Significant increases in the frequency of collisions (especially rear-end collisions).

    and there is a section that describes a well configured traffic control device, and a poorly configure one…poorly configured is a yellow so short that it causes excessive violations

    Reply
  • Mr. Matthew Weiss under what title, chapter and sub title would I find reference for duration of a yellow or amber light in the Administartive Guide?

    Reply
  • Matthew,

    I do not know if he was tail-gating. He may have presumed I would continue through the light, and he was not planning to stop so abruptly. Thankfully, no one was hurt.

    Peter

    Reply
  • Matthew,

    Good advice generally, but not my particular circumstance. I was once rear-ended when I stopped quickly for a yellow light. Given that there is no time to check the rear-view mirror before hitting the brakes for a light, I now check the safety of the intersection and proceed through if I am so close that I will have to stop too abruptly. I think that is what most drivers do. Safety should be the over-riding concern.

    Peter

    Reply
    • Peter,

      I am sorry to hear about your accident. It is unfortunate that another drive will ride up your back so close. In my opinion, tailgating is one of the most dangerous moving violations.

      I hope no one was hurt.

      Matthew Weiss

      Reply
  • The reason why people run red lights everywhere is because the federal standards themselves force them to. The federal standards violate the physical laws of motion. It is illegal for any city to enforce legislation which countermands the laws of Nature. It’s like enacting a law forbidding gravity.

    Reply
  • Matthew,

    Revised question:
    Thank you again for your response. Please forgive me for pressing the point, but could you reply more specifically to my question. If the variance between the duration of yellow lights in NYC can be 2 to 3 seconds, why ought not the variance of a driver’s response have similar allowable variance – i.e., 1 second – without being found a violation? After all, does it make sense to fine a driver for entering an intersection 2.8 seconds after a green light changes to yellow when the yellow light persists for 2 seconds, but not when the yellow light persists for 3 seconds?

    Peter

    Reply
    • Peter,

      The time period of a yellow light varies with the stretch of roadway it governs. For instance, yellow light on the West Side highway will remain in this phase longer than one governing a regular city intersection. The speed limit plays a big role here and the NYC Department of Transportation has a formula it uses to determine the amount of notice that a motorist driving within the speed limits needs and, then, sets the traffic control signal accordingly.

      No variance is allowed for motorists because the yellow light presumably remained yellow long enough for a motorist (obeying the speed limit) to stop. If you believe the subject light had a “fast yellow” then permits contact the NYC Department Of Transportation for clarification and possibly testing.

      Matthew Weiss

      Reply
      • Matthew,

        A motorist always has to decide whether it is safer to hit the breaks or to continue through an intersection. Unless he is familiar with an intersection, he cannot know how long a light will remain yellow if the duration is not uniform. I do not think it is in the public’s interest for the duration to have such variation, since that is not what the driving public expects and it likely causes some accidents.

        I believe that the point I have made remains valid. You have stated: “In New York City, a traffic control signal should remain in the yellow phase for, at least, 2 to 3 seconds. Of course, in areas where the speed limits are higher, then additional time should be added to the yellow light.” If the duration of a yellow light is 2 seconds in some 30 mph zones but 3 seconds in others, then it makes no sense to fine a driver for entering an intersection 2.8 seconds after a green light changes to yellow when the yellow light persists for 2 seconds, but not when the yellow light persists for 3 seconds. Drivers have no way of knowing in advance what the light timing is. This information does not even appear on the ticket.

        Peter

        Reply
        • Peter,

          Thanks for sharing your thoughts. The advice I give my clients in regard to traffic control lights is that, when you see it change yellow, brake immediately. This way you avoid a red light ticket and a possible accident. Red light violations, in my opinion, are one of the most dangerous types of moving violations.

          Matthew Weiss

          Reply
  • Matthew,

    Unfortunately, I entered an intersection 0.8 sec after the light turned red. Being among the retired, my reaction time is not what it used to be, and I did not expect the light to turn red so soon. I tried to explain this in a letter to the hearing judge, but he responded “The signal light defect log, an official DOT record, discloses no malfunction in the timing mechanism of the traffic light on or about the date of the violation, thereby persuasively establishing that all phases of the traffic light were properly timed and displayed in accordance with the requirements of NYS law at the time of the violation.” This, of course, avoids the point I made and makes no mention of how long the light remained yellow. If it was only for two seconds and other yellow lights persist for 3 seconds, then 0.8 sec is well within the expected duration of the yellow light. How do I find out the actual duration of the yellow light in Brooklyn on the evening in question, and what legal recourse do I have now that the hearing judge has rejected my defense?
    Note: I live upstate NY where yellow lights seem to persist longer, so the change to red occurred more rapidly than I anticipated. Is it possible that red light camera intersections are purposely set with shorter yellow lights in order to garner more funds for the city’s coffers? I would think that a fair judge would permit a 1 sec leeway, given the 1 second variability among lights, if as you say they vary between 2 and 3 seconds.

    Peter

    Reply
    • Peter,

      You can make a Freedom of Information Act (FOIL) request to the NYC Department of Transportation for this information. You only recourse in regard to the guilty determination is to appeal. Ask the court for the information on how to appeal.

      Matthew Weiss

      Reply
  • What are requirements for the duration of yellow lights under NYS law?
    How much variability is there in the duration of yellow lights at different intersections within NYS?
    If this duration varies by more than 1 second across locations, is unpredictability of yellow light duration in the case of a violation of less than one second a valid basis for dismissing a red light camera ticket? For example, if the duration of a yellow light may be 2 seconds at some intersections and 4 seconds at others, then a motorist cannot predict when the light will change to red within this range. Thus, he might enter an unfamiliar intersection within 3 seconds of the change to yellow only to find that the light changes to red in 2 seconds and he receives a red light camera ticket.
    Might short duration yellow lights at camera intersections be considered a form of entrapment?
    If unpredictability of yellow light duration is a valid defense, how does one appeal a red light camera ticket verdict of guilty when the infraction is less than one second, which is well within the bounds of variability among NYS lights?

    Reply
    • Peter,

      These are all great questions. Unfortunately, I honestly do not know the answers. In New York City, a traffic control signal should remain in the yellow phase for, at least, 2 to 3 seconds. Of course, in areas where the speed limits are higher, then additional time should be added to the yellow light.

      There is a proposed bill being reviewed in the New York Legislature which would require more uniformity for yellow light signals where a red light camera is installed. Hopefully, it will get passed soon.

      Matthew Weiss

      Reply
  • I recently was making a left turn in a 4 way intersection with a red light camera (in CA). It was green while I was going down the left lane and as it turned yellow, I made the turn as well. I was going above faster I assume since I tried to beat the light, and had to step on the brake during the turn, which then I paused at looked at the light. Cannot remember if it turned red on me, but now I am paranoid about the incident.

    If I already crossed during the yellow and during my tail, the light turned red, what does this mean as far as being fined a “red light camera ticket”?

    Reply
  • I have been hit with 2 tickets at the same light.. The first time I knew it right away. I saw it turn red as I got up to the light. The second one it was yellow when I approached it and must have turned red as I was going under it. We have timed that light and it stays yellow only 4 seconds. That is not enough time to always react. I have only 1 violation on my license in all my years of driving which is 37 years.

    Reply
    • Marie,

      These sound like red light camera tickets. If so, they they will not appear in your driving record, don’t carry oints and will not affect your auto insurance.

      Given the foregoing, we usually just recommend paying them especially since they are only $50 each and are very hard to beat.

      Matthew Weiss

      Reply
  • I think 3 seconds for a yellow light is way too short.

    Suppose there is a car on a side road near the intersection that looks like it might pull out in front of you when it shouldn’t. You can easily spend 3 seconds looking at that vehicle. In the meantime the light has turned red, with you not having enough time to stop.

    I have had this happen to me.

    I think the yellow light should be at about 7 seconds long.

    That way it gives you plenty of warning.

    I think most people that do not want to run red lights, but can’t help it because the yellow lights are too short.

    Reply
    • Lassar,

      You are not alone in your opinion about the length of yellow lights. I hear this a lot.

      Near my house, they recently put up the Walk/Don’t Walk Lights that countdown the seconds. I like this as it let’s me know from a distance how much time I have until the light will change from green to yellow.

      Matthew Weiss

      Reply
    • A 7-second light would frequently be noticed only while it was yellow … if you missed seeing the switch from green, you’d have no idea if it was going to turn red in 6 seconds or 6 tenths of a second. With a consistent 3 seconds, you’re in a much better position to make the right decision.

      The problem is that 3 seconds is barely adequate for traffic approaching at 30 mph. NYC’s traffic engineers assumes you’re not going any faster (30 is the limit), but the reality on some streets — like the West Side Highway — is something else entirely. (The busy cameras at 57th street nail at least one driver, and sometimes two or three, at almost every change of the lights!)

      Reply
      • Jim D,

        I’m a huge fan of the new “count down” walk signs. These are for pedestrians to know how much time they have to cross but motorists can also use them to know when a green light is about to change to yellow.

        Hopefully, we’ll see more of these installed throughout NYC.

        Matthew Weiss

        Reply
  • The Vehicle and Traffic Law (VTL) says that (a) all traffic control devices installed in the state must comply with the NYS Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) which is basically the federal MUTCD with some NY modifications, and (b) local jurisdictions have only the the authority granted in the VTL.

    Unfortunately, the VTL grants cities with a population in excess of 1 million or that occupy more than 1 county (i.e., NYC) some broad exceptions. One implicit federal requirements compliance with the Institute of Traffic Engineers manual with respect to traffic signal timing. The ITE manual says that on a straight, level road, a signal should be yellow for 3.2 seconds when the “approach speed” is 30 mph. Since one may reasonably assume that the approach speed is the speed limit (generally 30 mph in NYC), then 3 seconds is clearly unreasonable since the ITE guidelines are based on the laws of physics rather the those of NYS/NYC. It would seem to be a clear violation of due process to legislate an action that is not possible.

    The other side of the argument is that the NYC DOT has lengthened the red/red time (“clearance time” when all directions have a red light) in the expectation that the shorter yellow will get people to stop more quickly and the longer red/red period will compensate and result in an overall decrease in collisions and greater traffic throughput. The NYC DOT reasoning makes sense IF it didn’t result in summonses being given out in violation of the ITE formula.

    It seems to me that any summons that violates the ITE formula (it also includes adjustments for roads that are not straight and level, as well as approach speed) would invite a federal constitutional case.

    Reply
  • nachman ziskind
    March 21, 2011 4:59 pm

    “Does the NY law permit a motorist to enter an intersection on a yellow light?”

    Yes; the yellow traffic light is only a warning that red is coming. It is otherwise no different than green.

    “Is the motorist required to exit the intersection prior to the light turning red?”

    No. Red only means that you cannot ENTER an intersection. Nothing else. If you are there, for whatever reason, you need not leave (at least, nothing in 1111(d) 1 says so).

    *But*, there is another law (VTL sec. 1175) that says that you may NOT enter an intersection – except for turns – if you cannot make it all the way through. So, if you got stuck in the intersection while the light turned red, you probably violated this law. Unless you were turning.

    BTW, NYC traffic rules (4-07(b)(2)) do not contain the turning exception. Query if the City can outlaw something the State doesn’t. Eh?

    Reply
    • Nachman,

      If you enter the intersection on a yellow, you cannot be found guilty of disobeying a red light. The VTL 1175 refers to grid-locking. This charge only occurs if you enter the near cross walk when there is insufficient room beyond the far crosswalk to accommodate your car.

      I hope this helps.

      Best,

      Matthew Weiss

      Reply
      • nachman ziskind
        March 22, 2011 12:01 am

        Well, I’m glad you agree (that you can never be found guilty of a red light if it changes while you’re in the intersection and that VTL 1175 has nothing do with the color of the traffic light).

        But, what about my question – can you be convicted of spillback in NYC while making a turn?

        Reply
  • Matt,
    Great post on an important topic that most people wouldn’t pay attention to.

    Does the NY law permit a motorist to enter an intersection on a yellow light?
    Is the motorist required to exit the intersection prior to the light turning red?

    Thanks.

    Reply

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