Here is part 3 in my ongoing series of articles on traffic signals. Part 1 covered vehicle signals in general, and part 2 covered left turn indications specifically. This is really a continuation of part 2, so I won’t re-explain some terminology covered there. But flashing yellow arrows are important enough to deserve their own article.
The flashing yellow arrow is really the first new indication since the hand/man pedestrian signal was developed in the 1970s. Besides the desire to increase efficiency, it was driven by two problems. The first is that in practice some drivers really were too stupid to realize that a green ball means they had to yield to oncoming traffic. Mn/DOT actually had to convert the light on US 63 in Stewartville to split phase because of this issue.
The second reason is it eliminates the “yellow trap” in lead lag protected/permissive operations The most efficient way to operate a protected/permissive operation with coordinated signals is lead/lag. This was figured out not too long ago with computer modeling which is why lag lefts have not appeared en masse until recently. But this introduces a huge problem, the “yellow trap” is created, an extremely dangerous situation where two drivers each expect the other one to stop. This is a lot easier to explain with pictures; the red car is about to get “yellow trapped”.
The “yellow trap” is so dangerous that in an almost unprecedented move in 2003 federal standards required existing equipment to be modified so it’s either eliminated or warned of with a sign (typically reading “Oncoming Traffic has Extended Green”) within 5 years. More typically non-compliant installations may remain for the remainder of their service life.
The issue is created by the fact that conveying a permissive for left turn and a stop for through traffic was problematic. You can’t just display a green ball to left turners, because through traffic would see it while they had the red, and get confused. For a while Texas would add louvers to the left turn signal (Called “Dallas phasing”), but this only saw limited use, was problematic in that louvers (and programmable visibility heads) tend to make signals more difficult to see, even in the desired direction, and didn’t solve the emerging problem of drivers not yielding on green balls. Traffic engineers are a pragmatic bunch; if they see what they perceive as a real problem they will try to see if there’s a way to fix it rather than retort that drivers should just go back to traffic school, and the flashing yellow arrow was born when multiple agencies realized a national fix was needed.
Issues with Flashing Yellow Arrows
There are a few issues that have come up. One of them is the “disco effect”. In an urban environment with traffic signals every block (or even more), all the arrow flashing at different rates can definitely add to the visual clutter. Since traffic is typically slow moving in this situation, some agencies put lower wattage lamps in the flashing yellows, but with the conversion to LEDs all of them are the same brightness and they cannot be dimmed.
The second is a thing called the “perceived yellow trap”, if the driver was looking down texting on his cell phone, and then looks up at the flashing yellow arrow when it’s illuminated at the same time the other lights are turning yellow, the driver may think may think he or she’s about to get “yellow trapped”. But this is much less of a problem than the real yellow trap, because it will usually be obvious he or she is mistaken before getting a chance to start out.
Finally, some drivers don’t yet understand the meaning. In Cloquet they installed some flashing yellow arrows without the usual sign in an area without any previous installations, and drivers thought it meant they had the right-of-way, causing several accidents. Mn/DOT disabled it until they could get a sign erected. And I’ve personally witnessed drivers sitting at an arrow patiently waiting for a green, even with no one obviously coming. The “Left Turn Yield on Flashing Yellow Arrow” signs are meant as an interim measure to help drivers get used to them; discussion is under way whether the signs should remain for the remainder of their service life, or be removed after a couple of years.
Flashing Yellow Arrows for Right Turns
There’s also been limited use of flashing yellow *right* turn arrows, in heavy pedestrian areas to reinforce the need for right turning traffic to yield to pedestrians. A creative but unapproved proposal has a white pedestrian “man” flash alternatively with the yellow arrow in the same indication to remind drivers that pedestrians may be present. In some countries in Europe right turns on red are usually not allowed; the presence of a flashing yellow arrow indicates and exception, and drivers must yield to pedestrians but do not need to come to a stop before turning.
There exist arrows that can light up either yellow or green in the same section. They’ve never been used in Minnesota until recently, but were much more common out east. One use was to eliminate blind clearance without adding another section, but some agencies used them for new installations, either for signals hung on overhead span wires due to clearance issues, or just to save the cost of another signal section. Uniquely, Bennington, VT has a two section signal with a red arrow and a bimodal that operates as protected only, they didn’t have clearance for a standard three section signals. The older models were fiber optic, but they now come in LED models.
Fiber Optic Bimodal Arrow- Green Mode
Flashing Yellow Arrow Configurations
Four light heads: This is of course the standard configuration. It was thought that having the yellow arrow change position as well as light steady would focus attention on the fact that the phase was about to end. An additional benefit over the old permissive /protected standards is that lead lefts have a short red phase. This allows oncoming traffic a chance to take over at the very start of their turn, rather than wait until someone turning left finally stops.
Three light heads: Due to the obvious advantages of being able to use existing wiring and hardware, various configurations using thee section heads have been proposed. The first is simply replacing the green ball with a flashing yellow arrow in the lower section for permissive only turns. But utilizing only three sections for protected/permissive operations has also been proposed in two different configurations. One of them uses a bimodal arrow in the lower section.
A later proposal was to maintain the standard configuration but to either flash or light steady the yellow arrow. They did a study and found that the former increased accidents but the latter did not, so the latter is now allowed as an option. Presumably it will primarily be used in retrofit applications, and Mn/DOT has stated it is not allowed under any circumstances in Minnesota. The three light permissive only indication was originally allowed by Minnesota, but pulled before any installations actually went up.
Five Light Heads: Minnesota has quite a few four-lane undivided roads, some of which have protected/permissive phasing. Since there is no left turn lane, standard four section head with arrows wasn’t an option. Instead Minnesota, with consultation with the Federal Highway Administration, developed a 5 light configuration. The lower left arrow can light either steady green or flashing yellow. This is the first use of a bimodal arrow (and the first use of the so-called “doghouse” layout for permanent mountings) in Minnesota. This is also used for split phasings, where it operates part time as split phase and part time as permissive.
The rate of adoption varies; retrofitting an existing installation requires a substantial investment, besides new signal head, wiring, and a firmware upgrade sometimes a complete new cabinet is required. The city of Woodbury is in the middle of a five year project to retrofit all the signals it owns that are eligible and is also working with other agencies that own signals in the city. Meanwhile Minneapolis continues to violate state and national standards by erecting new “yield on greens” over turn lanes. Most agencies, besides using them for all new installations, are retrofitting existing signals here and there.
Overall, flashing yellow arrows are safer than green balls for protected/permissive, but more dangerous than protected only. However traffic engineering is always a balance between efficiency and safety, and they are safe enough that in almost all cases it tips the balance to allowing permissive turns at least part of the time. The next article in this series will look at pedestrian signalling.