Guest column: Flashing yellow turn lights improve driver safety

By James Lake/Michigan Department of Transportation 

The flashing yellow arrow left-turn signal is becoming more common on Michigan roads. If you haven't seen one on your travels yet, you will soon.

As with anything new, however, the flashing yellow arrow can be a bit confusing at first. But, as drivers encounter them more often, and at more locations, all of us will benefit from the improved safety and ease of movement they provide.

The flashing yellow arrow is one of four components and phases of the new signals, which are placed directly over the left-turn lane at intersections. In its first phase, drivers may turn when oncoming traffic has cleared. As with a flashing red "ball" signal, drivers must determine when there is an adequate gap in through-traffic to proceed with their turn.

The flashing yellow arrow is followed by a steady green arrow, allowing turning drivers with the right of way to proceed. At intersections that have vehicle-detecting cameras or sensors, this phase may be skipped if there are no vehicles waiting in the left-turn lane.

A steady yellow arrow follows the green phase and warns drivers that the signal is about to turn red. This gives turning motorists a chance to stop, or complete a turn if they are already legally in the intersection and there are no traffic conflicts.

A steady red arrow signal follows, requiring turning drivers to stop and wait until the next flashing yellow arrow and the sequence begins.

This new signal won't be installed at every intersection, but will be a replacement for signals that currently have the flashing red ball for left turns. This will have a secondary effect of enforcing the idea that red means "stop," and yellow means "proceed with caution."

Usually the entire signal head will be replaced with a four-light signal. In cases where a four-light signal can't be used, the lower third of a three-light signal will be the flashing yellow or steady green arrow.

Michigan is not the only state adopting the flashing yellow arrow signal. The signals are being added across the country. The change was prompted by a national study conducted for the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). The study showed that the new signals improve motorist understanding, move more traffic through intersections, and allow road agencies more ways to fine-tune an intersection's operation.

For those reasons, the Michigan Department of Transportation and other road agencies throughout the state are embracing the flashing yellow arrow signal. It's also why we're confident that as drivers become acquainted with it, they will see the benefits as well.

To see a demonstration of the flashing yellow arrow signal, or to download a brochure on its operation, visit

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Geoff Perkins
Tue, 12/18/2012 - 1:11pm
Confusing, indeed. We'll have people sitting at intersections gawking at the light wondering what it means. Where does the money come from for solving this non-saftey issue? Where are the stats on how many left turn arrow collisions occurred to necessitate this costly solution?