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Running a Yellow Light: Legal or Illegal?

Anderson Franco Law

Is running a yellow light legal? Approaching a yellow traffic light often triggers a split-second decision: do you accelerate and cross the intersection or hit the brakes? This momentary dilemma raises questions about the legality and ethics of running yellow lights. Let’s delve deeper into this gray area of traffic law and explore the factors to consider. As explained below, there is no specific law prohibiting cars to drive through a yellow traffic light. Instead, different factors must be considered. These considerations apply to vehicles, motorcycles, and bicycles.

People v. Avila: A Calculated Decision

The case of People v. Avila sheds light on the nuanced nature of navigating yellow lights. The court upheld the prosecutor’s argument that proceeding through an intersection on a yellow light isn’t a random choice but rather a calculated decision. Factors such as distance from the light and the presence of surrounding vehicles are considered. This suggests that while not explicitly illegal, crossing on yellow requires mindful consideration of the circumstances.

People v. Son: The Weight of Quick Judgment

Similarly, the case of People v. Son underscores the seriousness of treating the decision to run a yellow light as a ‘quick judgment’. Described as ‘cold’ and ‘calculated’, this action carries weight and potential consequences. It highlights the importance of exercising caution and responsibility when faced with yellow signals.

Yellow Lights are Warnings of Appearing Red Lights

In common law, yellow traffic signals are often interpreted as a cautionary warning indicating that a red light is about to follow. This interpretation stems from the understanding that yellow lights serve as a transitional phase between green and red, prompting drivers to prepare for a stop. Within this framework, yellow lights are perceived similarly to green lights insofar as they grant drivers the right of way, albeit temporarily. This legal theory underscores the importance of heeding yellow lights as signals for impending changes in traffic signal status, thereby promoting safer driving behaviors and facilitating the orderly progression of traffic flow.

Vehicle Codes & Running a Yellow Light

According to Cal. Vehicle Code § 21457, drivers must proceed with caution at flashing yellow lights. While this implies different rules for solid yellow lights, the specifics remain ambiguous. Furthermore, Cal. Vehicle Code § 21455.7 stipulates that the duration of yellow lights aligns with the California Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices. This implies that the duration of the yellow light plays a crucial role in decision-making and safety.

Ethical Considerations of Running a Yellow Light

Balancing Safety and Efficiency

Beyond legalities, ethical dimensions come into play when contemplating yellow lights. While it may be tempting to push through on yellow to save time, this must be balanced against the potential risks to oneself and others. Ethical drivers prioritize safety over expediency, recognizing their responsibility to uphold traffic laws and protect lives.

Accountability and Consequences

Running a yellow light isn’t just a matter of legality; it’s about accountability. Even if not explicitly illegal, the consequences of causing an accident or endangering pedestrians cannot be overlooked. Ethical drivers take ownership of their actions and consider the potential repercussions before deciding to cross on yellow.

Navigating yellow lights isn’t merely about following the letter of the law; it’s about exercising sound judgment and ethical responsibility. While legal statutes provide some guidance, the ultimate decision rests on drivers’ discretion and commitment to safety. By understanding the legal and ethical dimensions of running yellow lights, we can strive to make informed decisions that prioritize the well-being of ourselves and others on the road.

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