| Flashing Yellow Arrows
last updated December 4, 2022
Over the past
years, the implementation of the flashing yellow arrow (FYA) traffic
signal has become widespread. While the meaning of the signal
generally well-understood ("yield to turn left"), the reason for its
replacement of previous "permissive left" signals is not widely
understood with some cynics asserting it to be an intentional waste of
page is intended to explain the reason why the signal was developed and
why it is superior to previous permissive left signals.
(A "permissive left" is
when a signal permits you to turn left but the turn is not protected.)
The "Yellow Trap"
fully understand the reason for the FYA, you have to first understand a
traffic situation known as the "Yellow Trap." This occurs
driver enters an intersection on a green circular signal to wait for
a gap in oncoming traffic before turning left (which, by the way, is
perfectly legal and a common practice in many places.) While waiting,
signal turns yellow. Wanting to get out of the intersection before the
signal changes to red, and believing that oncoming traffic also has
yellow and therefore expecting oncoming traffic will slow down
and stop, the
driver turns left only to be T-boned by an oncoming vehicle.
in this situation,
a driver will instead opt to wait for oncoming traffic to actually stop
or will somehow know
that oncoming traffic does still have a green, and
so they will then continue to wait in the intersection while their
light turns red. However, sitting in an intersection with a red light
often leads the driver to quickly become anxious, making them prone to
more risky turns, or they will try to back out
of the intersection, both of which are undesirable outcomes.
of these dangers, traffic engineers for years had been trying a variety
solutions for the Yellow Trap. The most basic was signage
those below indicating that oncoming traffic had an extended green.
While a cheap and easy fix, many drivers did not understand
the signs meant (or just didn't read the sign to begin with) and still
ended-up in the Yellow Trap situation.
engineers in Dallas came up with what is regarded as the first
signalized solution. With conventional permissive left turns,
left turn signal shows the same circular signal as the adjacent through
signals (see first example below.) In
other words, when northbound through traffic has a green or
the northbound left turn also shows the same green or red circular
Dallas solution was to de-couple the left turn permissive signal from
the adjacent through signal and instead sync it with the
through signal. That way, when the northbound
left turn signal
turning red, the southbound
through signal was also turning red at the
same time, thus meeting the northbound left turning
motorist's expectation that opposing traffic will stop and thus
complete their turn safely. This became known as "Dallas Phasing".
Watch the animated comparison of left turn signals in the
site under "Other sites of interest" at the bottom of this page.)
side benefit of Dallas phasing was that there was increased time
each for left turns, which helped move more vehicles
intersection each cycle, thus helping to ease congestion.
accommodate this change using existing signal displays, engineers had
install louvers in the green circular signal for the left turn so that
the adjacent through traffic would not see it and perhaps get confused.
louvers worked reasonably well, but also reduced the visibility of the
markedly, especially if the signal got out of alignment or was on a
span wire and being blown by the wind. So it was less than ideal.
problem, though, was that some drivers became confused when
seeing red signals for the adjacent through traffic but a
green signal for the left turn lane. Because drivers
are accustomed to
this when they have a protected left, many drivers-- either
to instinct and/or not paying close attention--
started turning before recognizing that the green signal was not
arrow and that they in fact were supposed to yield. The
results of this were often disastrous.
signal display for
conventional permissive left turn.
understand to yield when turning left in this situation.
phasing" signal display for
permissive left turn when oncoming traffic has both through green and
protected left. (Note the louvers in the left turn lane through green
this to indicate a protected left turn.
FYA to the rescue
addition to Dallas phasing, several other jurisdictions across the
country were experimenting with other types of displays for permissive
left turns. So to establish a national standard, federal traffic safety
officials began a study in the mid '90s to evaluate and select the best
permissive left signal. Various combinations of different colored
flashing and solid arrows and circular
signals were evaluated. The FYA, which had been widely used in Europe
was included in the evaluation.
driver comprehension studies, the FYA was found to
have a high inherent understanding. Perhaps more importantly, drivers
who did not understand its meaning tended to interpret it to
mean "wait", (i.e. a "safe failure") whereas with the green
drivers who misunderstood it usually interpreted it as a protected turn
(i.e. a "critical
FYA also provided a signal indication that was exclusive for left
turns, i.e. it obviously had no meaning for through drivers, so
therefore seeing it would not possibly cause confusion for through
the FYA proved to be more versatile and flexible
in terms of
signal displays and operation than the other displays studied.
on the results of the studies, the FYA was field tested beginning in
2006 in localities in Maryland, Oregon, Florida, and Arizona. Those
tests confirmed that the FYA solved the Yellow Trap and
so with a generally-understood signal that,
when misinterpreted, typically resulted in a safer default
outcome. As a
result, the signal was approved
for general use in the 2009 Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices
and Dallas displays were prohibited for new installations.
Why the FYA is easily understood
FYA is instinctively understood by most drivers because of its
conformity with other flashing yellow indicators. With traffic
signals, a flashing yellow light means "proceed with caution", so a
flashing yellow arrow inherently conveys the meaning
studies of intersections where FYAs had been installed have
consistently shown significant reductions in all types of
While the problem of the Yellow Trap was mostly solved with Dallas
using the traditional green circular signal with Dallas Phasing to
indicate a permissive
left had several problems including driver misunderstanding that
resulted in turning when it wasn't safe, and problems at
intersections with span wires, far side signal requirements, or
that made the use of the required louvered signals difficult or
impossible. Additionally, other signal options could cause driver
confusion in certain circumstances and also had other operational
issues. The FYA was the best solution for all of those problems.
In short, here are the benefits of the FYA:
the Yellow Trap
a signal that is generally well-understood
a signal that if not understood, usually results in a safe outcome
a signal that is flexible and can be used universally
a signal that is exclusive for left turns
left turn capacity, thus helping to reduce congestion
sites of interest