Flashing yellow arrow traffic signals are unnecessary and needlessly confusing


I’ve been driving over 35 years. And I was a professional truck driver for over 25 years. I also know something about semiotics.

A sign (or symbol) represents (or points to) something else. Although some signs (or symbols) may resemble that which they represent (or point to) they need not do so and, in fact, are usually arbitrary.

For instance, a pedestrian crossing sign has a symbolic representation of a pedestrian on it, whereas a STOP sign has arbitrary symbols (=letters) used to form the word STOP.

Although we don’t normally give traffic signs and symbols much thought, there is, in fact, a lot to think about when it comes to signs and symbols in general, and traffic signs in particular.

It’s not often that a sign or a symbol can prevent a fatality or serious injury, but they can (and they do) in many cases. Traffic signs and symbols do this, as well as signs and symbols found in hazardous work environments.

This brings me to the latest traffic symbol being rolled out in every state: the flashing yellow arrow.

In short, the flashing yellow arrow light symbol is replacing — in some intersection — the circular green light symbol, which means: “Left turn yield on green”.

Some (=most) intersections will retain the circular green light symbol, others will now have the flashing yellow arrow light symbol. Both mean (or represent) the same thing: “Left turn yield on light symbol”.

I have three problems with this.

  1. A chosen traffic symbol should be the same everywhere, not just in certain places.
  2. A traffic symbol should not be replaced with a different symbol without good reason.
  3. Traffic light color symbols should always retain their meanings.

Without uniformity, we’re asking for confusion. In some places a circular green light means “Left turn yield on green”. In other places a flashing yellow arrow means “Left turn yield on flashing yellow arrow”. This is a needless multiplicity of symbols and meanings that will cause (and already has caused) confusion, accidents, injuries, and deaths.

Once we have decided upon (and used for many years) a circular green light as the “Left turn yield on green” symbol we need to stick with it. There is no good reason for changing it.

A flashing yellow light at an intersection means… what?

If it’s a flashing CIRCULAR YELLOW light it means you may proceed with caution, because the traffic coming from the other directions have a flashing CIRCULAR RED light, which means: STOP.

If it’s a FLASHING YELLOW ARROW in a left turn lane it means you may turn but you must yield to oncoming traffic, which has a CIRCULAR GREEN light.

Circular yellow lights mean slow down when flashing (caution) and prepare to stop when steady.

Yellow lights, as symbols, have never meant: “You can go but you don’t have the right of way”.

A circular green light has always meant “You can go but you don’t have the right of way”.


Until now.

Although the circular symbol has been replaced with an arrow symbol, the color YELLOW is being used for a new and different purpose with the new flashing yellow arrow.

I don’t think this new symbol is necessary, and I think it’s needlessly confusing.

Also, why have states been installing these lights without informing drivers about these new and confusing symbols?

No licensed driver has ever read about them in the state driver’s manual.

The states haven’t bothered to mail notices to each licensed driver informing them of a new, major signal change in dangerous left turn situations? Why? This is completely irresponsible.

Pennsylvania’s first-ever flashing yellow left turn arrow comes to the midstate

“If you see a flashing yellow left turn arrow on a traffic light in Lower Allen Township next week, don’t worry, it’s supposed to be doing that.

“The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation announced Friday that it would be installing the state’s first ever flashing yellow arrow signal at the intersection of U.S. 15 and Rossmoyne Road. The new traffic signal — which will cost about $6,000 to install — is meant to reduce crashes at the intersection…”

Continue reading: Pennsylvania’s first-ever flashing yellow left turn arrow comes to the midstate http://s.pennlive.com/Ohl44Ua

The PA Driver’s Manual says nothing about flashing yellow arrows (see pages 7-8) (.pdf) http://tinyurl.com/zlzadjq



Flashing Turn Arrows Have Some Drivers Confused

“If you drive in Wichita Falls, you’ve probably noticed the blinking lights at intersections across town. New state and federal standards require all new intersections and those where lights are being replaced to have the flashing turn arrows.

 “One woman told us she witnessed an accident Wednesday at the intersection of Kell West and McNiel, and she said the new lights are creating some dangerous confusion.

“Officer Jeff Hughes, with the Wichita Falls Police Department, confirmed there has been more accidents at the intersection after the lights were installed…”

Read more: Flashing Turn Arrows Have Some Drivers Confused http://bit.ly/1r1POIN


The Flashing Yellow Arrow: Safe and Efficient or Causing Confusion?

“After a Tuesday morning crash between a semi-truck and a minivan at Red Cap Corner injured three senior citizens, some asked if the signal installed in September could have been a contributing factor in the accident…”

Continue reading: The Flashing Yellow Arrow: Safe and Efficient or Causing Confusion? http://magicvalley.com/news/local/the-flashing-yellow-arrow-safe-and-efficient-or-causing-confusion/article_81fcbfd7-df2a-578e-aa73-dcb9235810f5.html

Another left-turn crash; flashing yellow arrow to blame?

“One person was transported to the hospital after a two-car collision occurred at the intersection of Green Springs Drive and Red Cliffs Drive at approximately 8:30 p.m. Monday. The driver cited was charged with failure to yield on a flashing yellow left-turn signal…”

Another left-turn crash; flashing yellow arrow to blame? https://www.stgeorgeutah.com/news/archive/2014/02/04/eda-another-left-turn-crash-flashing-yellow-to-blame/


Flashing yellow arrows could be to blame for increased Bonham accidents

“Bonham police are concerned that drivers don’t understand the new flashing yellow arrows.

“Before the new lights went up at 121 and 56, police worked about an accident a month there.

“Now that the flashing yellow arrows are in operation, accidents have quadrupled — averaging four accidents a month.

“The new flashing yellow arrows are still causing confusion and leading to accidents…”

Continue reading: Flashing yellow arrows could be to blame for increased Bonham accidents http://www.kxii.com/home/headlines/Flashing-yellow-arrows-could-be-to-blame-for-increased-Bonham-accidents-182450291.html

Witnesses: Confusion over new traffic signal caused fatal crash

“Witnesses say Thursday morning’s fatal crash on the city’s south side happened because of confusion over a new traffic signal.

“The crash was reported around 11 a.m. on State Road 37 near Southport Road when a van and car collided near the intersection. A woman was pronounced dead at the scene…

“The signals in question are flashing yellow lights that allow a driver to make a left turn without waiting for a green light — as long as the driver deems it safe…”

Read more: Witnesses: Confusion over new traffic signal caused fatal crash https://shar.es/1e2Vso


Due to recent crashes, plug pulled on flashing yellow light signal in Cloquet

“Due to multiple crashes recently at the intersection of Highway 33 and Big Lake Road, the yellow flashing caution light is being turned off after being activated for just one month.

“The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) decided to turn off the flashing light because people were turning into oncoming traffic, instead of yielding at the yellow flashing light as they are supposed to.

Continue reading: Due to recent crashes, plug pulled on flashing yellow light signal in Cloquet http://www.northlandsnewscenter.com/news/local/Due-to–280216662.html

FLASHING YELLOW ARROWS: WHAT CAN GO WRONG? – http://midimagic.sgc-hosting.com/fyafwcgw.htm

TRAFFIC SIGNALS: LEFT TURN DEFINITIONS – http://midimagic.sgc-hosting.com/lagdef.htm

Flashing yellow arrow sequence (.pdf) – http://www.ci.westminster.co.us/Portals/0/DigArticle/1032/FlashingYellowArrowSignals.pdf

flashing arrow copy

Driver’s Understanding of Protected/Permitted Left-Turn Signal Displays

“Problems with PPLT signal phasing, primarily related to the green ball permitted indication, have been identified but not resolved. Many traffic engineers argue that the MUTCD green ball permitted indication is adequate and properly presents the intended message to the driver. Other traffic engineers argue that the green ball permitted indication is not well understood and therefore inadequate. The latter argument is based on the belief that left-turn drivers may interpret the green ball permitted indication as a protected indication, creating a potential safety problem.

“It has been suggested that drivers would better understand a permitted left-turn indication if it included a change in color, position, and mode of operation (i.e., flashing). Consequently, traffic engineers have developed at least four variations of PPLT permitted indications. These variations replace the green ball permitted indication with either a flashing red ball, flashing yellow ball, flashing red arrow, or flashing yellow arrow indication. Additionally, variations in signal display arrangement and placement are applied. This variability has led to a myriad of PPLT signal displays and permitted indications throughout the United States that may confuse drivers and lead to inefficient and unsafe operations.”

Source: Driver’s Understanding of Protected/Permitted Left-Turn Signal Displays (.pdf) – http://www.topslab.wisc.edu/publications/2001/noyce_2001_0265.pdf (Emphasis added)

Left-turn phase: permissive, protected, or both? A quasi-experimental design in New York City.

“The practice of left-turn phasing selection (permissive, protected-only, or both) varies from one locality to another. The literature evidence on this issue is equally mixed and insufficient. In this study, we evaluate the safety impacts of changing left-turn signal phasing from permissive to protected/permissive or protected-only at 68 intersections in New York City using a rigorous quasi-experimental design accompanied with regression modeling. Changes in police reported crashes including total crashes, multiple-vehicle crashes, left-turn crashes, pedestrian crashes and bicyclist crashes were compared between before period and after period for the treatment group and comparison group by means of negative binomial regression using a Generalized Estimating Equations (GEE) technique. Confounding factors such as the built environment characteristics that were not controlled in comparison group selection are accounted for by this approach. The results show that the change of permissive left-turn signal phasing to protected/permissive or protected-only signal phasing does not result in a significant reduction in intersection crashes. Though the protected-only signal phasing does reduce the left-turn crashes and pedestrian crashes, this reduction was offset by a possible increase in over-taking crashes. These results suggest that left-turn phasing should not be treated as a universal solution that is always better than the permissive control for left-turn vehicles. The selection and implementation of left-turn signal phasing needs to be done carefully, considering potential trade-offs between safety and delay, and many other factors such as geometry, traffic flows and operations.”

Source: Left-turn phase: permissive, protected, or both? A quasi-experimental design in New York City – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25626164 (Emphasis added)

flashing yellow arrow sign

About ajmacdonaldjr

writer, author, blogger
This entry was posted in Accident Prevention, Safety, Society, Symbolism, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Flashing yellow arrow traffic signals are unnecessary and needlessly confusing

  1. Mr. Not telling says:

    Flashing Yellow Arrows Are Actually Designed To Prevent Yellow Trap And Make Intersections More Efficient

    • I know. One of the articles I linked to mentions that. I still think it’s a really bad idea. By the way, the state highway department where I live hasn’t bothered to notify anyone of the new signal/symbol. Considering the danger presented by left turns, and the confusion being caused in other states by this new signal/symbol, which is unknown to drivers and has caused numerous deaths and injuries, I would think PennDOT could have mailed a notice explaining the new signal/symbol to every licensed driver. Also, the new signal/symbol is not mentioned in the 2016 edition of the PA Driver’s manual.

      • Mr. Not telling says:

        The FYA Was Not Designed To “Remove Confusion That Results From Using The Circular Green For Permissive Left Turns” That Is What Some Politicians Think. More Reasons Why FYA > Green Ball. The FYA Seperates Left Turn Movements From Thru Movements, Allows Progressoin On More 2 Way Streets, Works Fine With Median Left Turns, Makes Offset Intersections Safe, Properly Used Makes Pre Emptions Safe. I Know FYA Is Not Suitable Everywhere, For Example, It Is Not Suitable For Intersections Where There Are Multiple Left Turn Lanes, Three Or More Lanes Of Oncoming Traffic, More Than Four Legs At An Intersection or Reduced Vision Of Oncoming Traffic. And About “PennDOT Could Have Mailed A Notice” Yes They Should Have, Or Talked About It On News. I Dont Know About Other States, But In The State I Live In, I Know 0 Problems Related To FYA Confusion. Most Of The Things I Said Came From Here:http://midimagic.sgc-hosting.com/notstupd.htm

        FYA = Flashing Yellow Arrow

  2. Another stooopid feel-good idea with blowback.

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