We Teach Driving Like Your Life Depends On It

Flashers send colour-coded messages

By Steve Wallace, Times Colonist, February 10, 2012

Flashing amber means to proceed with caution, while flashing green means the intersection is pedestrian-controlled.

Do you know what a flashing amber traffic light means? The answer is simple. It means proceed with caution.

Traffic engineers try their best to keep the traffic moving in our sophisticated road network. They are often confounded by the average driver’s behaviour. Take, for example, the following situation.

The traffic lights at the intersection have malfunctioned. The automatic mechanism switches to a flashing amber in the direction of the high traffic volume and a flashing red light in the cross-traffic direction of the less-travelled route.

For some reason, drivers approaching the flashing amber come to a complete stop, effectively turning the intersection into a four-way stop, instead of following the system designed by engineers to keep traffic moving.

This can lead to a potentially lethal situation.

When a driver who knows exactly what a flashing amber means approaches the intersection, intending to proceed with caution, another driver with the flashing red may mistakenly drive through the intersection thinking it is his/her turn to cross.

Thus, engineers often opt for the flashing red traffic light at all intersections where there has been a signal failure.

A flashing red light means the same as a stop sign.

It will not change colour unless activated by a pedestrian-control button.

Whether the flashing red traffic light is a stand-alone light or coupled with a full red-amber-green assembly, it means the same: Stop and proceed when safe to do so.

The strangest solid-red traffic-light situation is on Hastings Street in Vancouver. The solid pedestrian activated red light is situated mid-block.

When pedestrians are clear of the roadway, vehicles are permitted to go through the crosswalk on the solid red traffic light because there is no cross street hazard.

I was there last year and did not dare try the manoeuvre, fearing few pedestrians and motorists would understand it.

A flashing green traffic light means the same as a solid green light except for one deviation. It is controlled by pedestrians who wish to cross the intersection.

When they push the button, the traffic light will, after a short duration, show a solid green light and then go through a regular amber cycle.

Drivers are not permitted to proceed through the intersection until the traffic light has returned to a flashing green. (In Manitoba, the flashing green light means the same as the flashing green arrow designating the allowable unobstructed left turn in other provinces.)

A flashing green left arrow means the left turn traffic gets to go left for as long as the light remains flashing.

When the flashing left arrow turns to amber, the left turners who have yet to enter the intersection must stop, unless they are too close to safely stop or are in the intersection.

The latest addition to the cavalcade of flashing traffic lights is the high-intensity amber diodes.

When pedestrians press the button and activate the alternating amber lights, all vehicular traffic must stop to allow the pedestrian to cross the street.

This type of pedestrian crossing only requires the driver to stop until the pedestrian has cleared the lane used by the driver proceeding through the intersection.

If the two directions of traffic are separated by a median, vehicle drivers often proceed through the intersection while the pedestrian is on the other side of the median. It is not legal to do so.

Reading the safe driving manual, provided free of charge at any driver licensing office, is a good way to refresh one’s memory concerning not only flashing traffic lights but also other important driving regulations.

Steve Wallace is a member of the College of Teachers and the owner of Joan Wallace Driving School on Vancouver Island and the Interior of B.C.


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