The Flawed Science Behind Traffic Lights

Thomas Jeter • May 14, 2014

The Flawed Science Behind Traffic Lights

From a very young age, most people know the basic rules of a traffic light: green means go, red means stop. There are actually children’s games built around the principle. The yellow light is not, as some may think, an indication to put the pedal to the metal in order to get through the intersection. On the contrary, the yellow light signals a driver that he or she should be prepared to stop as the red light is imminent. But does the yellow light actually give you enough time to safely come to a stop?

Decades-Old Technology

In 1960, a man named Alexei Maradudin developed the technology used in traffic lights today. However, Maradudin, who is now teaching physics at the University of California-Irvine, noted that when he developed the formula, he did not take into account drivers who are making a turn at the intersection. As a result, the yellow light may be a few seconds shorter than it needs to be in order to accommodate all oncoming drivers.

Spotting the Violations

Traffic cameras are growing in popularity, targeting drivers who speed through an intersection against a red light. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reports that as of May 2014, there are 503 communities across the United States with red light camera programs.

In North Carolina, a number of areas including Charlotte, Matthews and Huntersville use cameras. The penalties can be as much as a $100 fine and 3 points on your license. In South Carolina, however, photo enforcement may only be used if there is a declared state of emergency. According to the IIHS, the individual must be ticketed within an hour of the infraction in order for it to stick.

A Serious Problem

There are several consequences to running a red light. At best, you narrowly make it through the intersection and perhaps encounter some horn-honking. At worst, a major accident occurs. The IIHS reports that the biggest cause of urban crashes are drivers who run a red light. A look at the statistic reveals just how prevalent the infraction is:

  • A survey in the Journal of Safety Research reports that more than half of Americans admit to the behavior.
  • Fatalities associated with running red lights are increasing at a rate that is three times higher than the rate of causes for all other fatal accidents.
  • Roughly 165,000 injuries and 800 deaths occur every year in the U.S. due to drivers who go against a red light.


At Nosal & Jeter, we understand the effects that traffic citations can have on a driver’s record, wallet, insurance rates and more. Our team regularly handles cases involving North Carolina and South Carolina traffic law, building arguments to get violations dismissed or consequences lessened. We can help you dispute a ticket and prevent major repercussions.

Source: 11 ABC, “I-Team: Are yellow lights too short when making turns?” Jon Camp, May 6, 2014