The start of red, not the end of green: the rule drivers keep getting wrong about yellow lights

A yellow traffic light

Nicola Dowse

Posted February 01, 2023

Do you know the correct way to respond to a yellow light? Not properly understanding this simple road rule could result in a hefty fine.

Knowing what to do at traffic lights is one of the most important road rules for motorists. Even as children, an integral part of road safety is knowing that ‘red means stop’ and ‘green means go’. 

When it comes to amber or yellow lights, however, some confusion remains within the community about what the yellow light really means and the correct way to respond. 

VicRoads states that at a yellow light, motorists must “must stop unless you can't stop safely”. But what exactly does “stop safely” mean? 

James Williams, Head of Policy at RACV, says that drivers should rethink how they view yellow lights.

“Motorists should view yellow lights as the start of the red, not the end of the green.”

“The only reason you can drive through a yellow light is if you are so close to the intersection that braking could either cause a crash or cause you to stop within the intersection.”

Can I be fined for driving through a yellow light? 

Yes. If you drive through a yellow light when you could have safely stopped prior to the intersection you are liable to be fined.  

The penalties for doing so in Victoria include the loss of three demerit points and up to 2.5 penalty units. For the 2022/2023 year, one penalty unit is equivalent to $184.92. This means you can be fined up to $462.30 for going through a yellow light.  

If you choose to dispute the fine in court and lose, up to ten penalty units can be applied, translating to a $1,849 fine.  

If you go through a yellow arrow, the penalty is doubled (that is, five penalty units can be deducted). 


Traffic Lights - Victorian Road Rules | RACV

What should I do if I see a yellow traffic light?

Silvia Morris, Senior Instructor at RACV Drive School, says that learners in particular can receive mixed messages from friends, family and instructors on what to do when faced with a yellow traffic light.  

“Some tell them that they should try and make it across the intersection of they have time, and others tell them they should stop if it is safe to do so,” she says. 

“Because of this, learners often get into a panicked situation when they see the light ahead turn yellow and find it difficult to work out whether they should stop or continue.” 

Morris reiterates that yellow lights should not be seen as an excuse to speed up. 

“Drivers need to change their mindset from ‘can I make it?’ to ‘can I stop?’,” she says.  

“Ask yourself: ‘can I safely stop before the line?’, and if the answer is ‘yes’, then you should.”

She also clarifies the subjectivity of what counts as a ‘safe stop’ with a simple test. If you are so close to the intersection that you need to slam on the brakes to stop, or that braking would have you stop in the middle of the intersection, then you should proceed through the yellow light. If you can stop without having to slam the brakes, then you should not proceed. 

It’s also a good idea to check your mirrors and be aware of surrounding traffic as you approach an intersection. How other vehicles are behaving around you may also influence your decision if the lights do turn yellow. If a car is tailgating you, the safest decision may be to proceed through a yellow light to avoid sudden braking that could cause a collision.

Depending on the local speed limit, yellow lights last for between three and five seconds (with higher speed limits requiring longer durations for safety reasons). Failing to respond appropriately to a yellow light risks not just financial penalties, but also collisions with other vehicles.  

“Considering they are likely to have been picking up speed on their approach to the intersection to make it across in time, you can imagine the very serious collisions and injuries that can result from these decisions.”


A yellow traffic light

When faced with a yellow light, ask yourself: "can I safely stop before the line?". Photo: Getty.

What do flashing yellow lights mean?

Occasionally you might come across an intersection where the traffic lights are flashing yellow. This usually indicates that the lights are not working. Police traffic controllers are usually quick to the scene to direct traffic when this occurs. 

However, sometimes you may arrive at such an intersection before the police. In these circumstances you must follow the same rules as an intersection that features only a stop or a give way sign.

That includes giving way to any vehicle approaching the intersection from the right, as well as any oncoming traffic travelling straight or turning left if you yourself want to turn right. The safest option when faced with such an intersection is to make a left turn (which will have the least amount of intersecting traffic) and find an alternate route to your destination.

“You must stay alert and be very cautious as there are many other drivers who may not be aware of these rules and who may not follow the correct process,” Morris says. 

Yellow arrows

The same rules apply to yellow arrow traffic lights as they do for regular yellow traffic lights. That means you should not enter the intersection if you’re able to safely stop prior to it. 

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