Yellow Lights Need To Be Longer

If you’ve ever felt yellow lights aren’t long enough, you aren’t alone. The length of the light varies from place to place and it’s sometimes confusing for drivers driving somewhere new who are used to a certain duration at home. A Swedish engineer named Mats Järlström is fighting the good fight in trying to make yellow lights longer.

It all started in 2013, when Järlström’s wife received a red-light ticket. After going over the footage himself, he went and fought the ticket in court because he believed the yellow light was not adequately long enough, reports Popular Mechanics. Beaverton, Oregon, which is where Järlström lives, legally requires a 3.5-second yellow light.

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Järlström, a credentialed electrical engineer in Sweden before he moved to the United States, claimed the yellow lights were too short at intersections and, therefore, all the red-light tickets collected at busy intersections were unjustified, reports The Oregonian in a 2014 story.

“This exposes both pedestrians and drivers who are moving across the intersection with the green light to the risk of injury or death due to the illegally short yellow light intervals,” Järlström complaint stated.

Unfortunately, Järlström’s case was tossed out “with prejudice,” which meant that he couldn’t take it back to court.

If this situation and Järlström’s name sound familiar to you, it’s because we’ve written about him before. In 2017, we reported he’d gotten fined $500 by the Oregon State Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land Surveying for criticizing the length of the state’s yellow light duration and considered it practicing engineering without a license. Christ.

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But despite having his case thrown out and paying a dumbass fine (which he won a freedom of speech lawsuit over), Järlström has not given up.

Spectrum, an IEEE magazine, reports an Institute of Transportation Engineers appeals panel has backed Järlström’s claims that yellow traffic lights are too short for a driver to comfortably and safely complete a turn through an intersection, though does not suggest what the timing should be.

“The existing Kinematic Equation does not fully cover several dilemma-zone situations for left-turn and right-turn movements,” the ITE panel concluded, according to KOIN. “The Panel suggests that this item be properly reconsidered by ITE.”​

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Per the Popular Mechanics story:

In consulting with ITE members and even speaking at one of their conferences, Järlström is pushing for one specific change to the kinematic equation. The shorter yellow lights to increase ticketing are a safety problem in general, but in Järlström’s wife’s case, her issue was that she was waiting to turn during a yellow light.

Because of the different speed and approach to making a left turn, the equation didn’t assign enough of a time value to account for this slower part of intersection traffic. Järlström’s work doesn’t seek to replace the ITE’s existing equation at all, but instead, add mathematical nuance that will include people waiting to turn.

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I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched drivers goose it through an intersection during a yellow light. The LA-left, we called it when I lived there. We’ve all done it, but problems arise when drivers time things poorly and wind up running a red light. It’s dangerous for other cars and pedestrians alike.

Longer yellow lights mean drivers will have more reaction time. Sure, that might mean cities will miss out on some red-light running fines, but whatever! It’s peoples’ safety we’re talking about, here.

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It’s unclear if Oregon will actually make any changes to its yellow light duration, but it’s great to see Järlström getting somewhere with his findings.

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About the author

Kristen Lee

Writer at Jalopnik and consumer of many noodles.