green street light

When A Green Light Is Not a Command to GO

If you are turning left, the signal light on the left is really the same as the sign on the right. I know that seems like an obvious statement. Most people don’t need a lawyer’s advice for Driver’s Education 101, but I thought this was worth talking about. In my work as a motor vehicle injury lawyer, I see more injuries from this mistake than I do from running red lights or missing stop signs.

I often talk to people who are injured because a driver turning left on a green light did not yield the right of way to oncoming traffic. The injured driver will say, “They just turned right in front of me and there was nothing I could do.” Or sometimes the passenger will say, “There was a car coming but my driver just turned right in front of it, and it was too late.” If the turning driver has a passenger, that person is in an especially bad position because the oncoming car will hit their side in a T-bone type crash. The bad driver always says, “But I had a GREEEEEEEENNN light!” The problem is the oncoming car also had a GREEEEEEEENNN light and they were going straight.

This mistake is most commonly made in more rural areas where the oncoming traffic has not backed up on the other side of the intersection. Drivers who are turning left usually yield when there are other cars sitting on the opposite side of the intersection from them. The time to watch out is when the light changes and there is another car approaching the intersection from a distance on the opposite side, usually travelling at a good speed. Many drivers don’t look in the distance for oncoming cars when their light turns green. This happens most when the left turning driver is trying to get through the intersection before the light changes, or trying to beat the light as we say. The driver is watching the light and not looking up the road for oncoming traffic.

According to the North Carolina Driver’s Handbook:

“A circular green signal means “go,” but left turning traffic is “unprotected” and must yield the right of way to oncoming traffic.”

“A green arrow means that you have a “protected” turning movement with no other conflicting traffic in the intersection except U-turn traffic that should yield to all other traffic in the intersection.”

Many traffic signals are being updated with five possibilities for the light patterns that include circular yellow and green lights on the right side for the through traffic and arrow yellow and green lights for the left turning traffic. I hope that these new signals make it easier for folks to understand their rights and obligations at lighted traffic intersections.

One of the first lawyers I ever worked with used to have an expression that I think we should teach in driving school: “A green light is NOT a command to GO!!!” Drivers should always look to make sure that they can enter an intersection safely, and that they are yielding to others if required. I have tried to teach this rule to my children, and I try to practice it when I am behind the wheel. We should start teaching “green is not a command to go” in driver’s education, and move away from the phrase “green means go.”

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