Stop? Go? States shape dilemma of yellow light

Driving laws differ in Washington, Oregon

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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Just about any driver knows the feeling: That moment when you’re approaching an intersection, and the traffic light turns yellow. But you’re in no man’s land. You’re not sure whether to stop or go ahead.

Some call that area of indecision the “dilemma zone.” It’s the site of thousands of crashes each year in the United States. And it’s at least partially complicated by divergent traffic rules from state to state, according to Oregon State University researchers.

“We think that causes a little bit of problem, the fact that there are varying laws,” said David Hurwitz, an OSU assistant professor of transportation engineering who helped author a recent study.

Locally, major traffic rules don’t change much from one side of the Columbia River to the other. But there are smaller differences -- speed limits, licensing requirements and the like. Law enforcement officials say those discrepancies aren’t enough to have a big impact on how they do their jobs.

“It’s not like you have one state where you can drive under the influence and one state where you can’t,” said Oregon State Police Lt. Gregg Hastings. “Those things are pretty standard across the board.”

But in the dilemma zone of stoplight intersections, the rules do differ slightly from Washington to Oregon. If a vehicle encounters a solid yellow light in Washington, for example, state law requires the driver to “stop for pedestrians who are lawfully within the intersection control area.” In Oregon, the law appears more restrictive, requiring drivers to stop at every yellow light regardless, as long as it’s safe to do so.

Hurwitz said yellow lights are generally timed to last 3 to 6 seconds before turning red. But the reasons behind those settings aren’t always uniform. Gaining a better understanding of the “dilemma zone” may help engineers tweak light timing and other technology to help reduce crashes, Hurwitz said. The ultimate goal is to make drivers’ decisions easier and keep them out of that situation altogether, he said.

‘Not from around here’

As differing rules go, at least one Vancouver resident holds first-hand experience. Several years ago, City Attorney Ted Gathe found himself on the wrong end of a red-light camera in Northeast Portland. Vancouver has considered the enforcement cameras in the past, but ultimately decided not to put the technology in place here.

Gathe said the traffic light was yellow when he entered the intersection, but turned red before he got through. The camera flashed. Gathe ended up with a ticket.

Gathe made his case before a municipal judge, he said, arguing he lawfully entered the intersection before the light turned red. The judge listened, and responded with something to the effect of “You’re not from around here, are you?” Gathe said.

Ultimately, the ticket was reduced, Gathe said. But he still ended up with a fine of about $250. He offered this advice to Vancouver commuters who get hit with a ticket in Portland:

“It’s not a defense to say, ‘I went through on the yellow,’” he said.

Another example of diverging traffic laws is likely more familiar to Washington and Oregon drivers: both states’ recently evolving rules on using mobile phones in cars.

Washington’s cellphone ban started as a secondary offense -- meaning an officer would have to observe another infraction before pulling the driver over -- but now stands as a primary offense. Oregon’s law recently became more strict, eliminating many of the exemptions written into the original version.

The bottom line is, in both states it’s illegal to send text messages or talk on a cellphone without a hands-free device. Most people know the rules by now, said Washington State Patrol Trooper Ryan Tanner.

“I think there’s been a lot of push,” he said. “Distracted driving in general is a big deal on everybody’s radar.”

Tanner said Vancouver-area troopers don’t necessarily treat out-of-state drivers differently, but can use a traffic stop as an educational opportunity in some cases. Sometimes an oral warning is enough. Hastings said Oregon troopers use a similar approach.

“You take each stop on its own merits,” Hastings said. “But you want to try to be aware if you can what someone’s knowledge is of (local) law.”

Eric Florip: 360-735-4541; http://twitter.com/col_enviro; eric.florip@columbian.com.