Dr. Traffic

Dr. Traffic: Red arrow makes right-turns confusing

Charlotte Transportation

Time for a confession: I sat in a right-turn lane and refused to budge until the light turned green – many times. But each time my lane’s signal had a red arrow pointing to the right.

People honked. A lot.

I was wrong not to turn at the red arrow, but I was confused. My husband got a traffic ticket for making a right turn at a right-pointing red arrow in Washington, D.C. Uh-uh, I didn’t want to get pulled over.

Well, turns out the rules are different in North Carolina. The right-turn arrow here is more of a courtesy, used only in right-turn lanes, said Steve Abbott, a spokesman for N.C. Department of Transportation.

“It’s a helpful reminder that you’re in the right-turn lane,” Abbott said during a phone interview. “Here, a red arrow is the same as a red round light.”

What about a left turn on red at a one-way street? Would you?

I thought it was OK, as long as it was a one-way street. One of my colleagues said no.

Answer: He was right.

“No left turns on red allowed,” Abbott said.

I thought I might as well ask about flashing yellow arrows while I had him on the phone. We’re seeing more of them in left-turn lanes all around town.

These sometimes show up when you’re at a signal in the left-turn lane, especially when a long line of cars is waiting to turn ahead of you.

First you’d see a green arrow pointing left. The car in the front of the line sits there motionless until the arrow changes from green to yellow, of course. Then two or three cars speed through, hopeful they can make it or defiant of the expected red light.

Surprise. What comes next at some intersections is a flashing yellow left arrow, giving you more time to get through the intersection.

For me, this is a sign that someone, somewhere understands our suffering. Why should we have to sit idle in a left-turn lane and let precious minutes slip away when there’s no oncoming traffic and the cars to our right still have the right-of-way?

The flashing yellow arrow solves that problem. It also eliminates confusion for many drivers about who has the right-of-way. Drivers “intuitively knew what the flashing yellow arrow meant,” a U.S. Department of Transportation report said.

“The flashing yellow arrow eliminates a particular nasty situation known as the ‘left turn yellow trap’ where a person makes a left turn thinking that the opposing thru traffic has to stop, when in reality, it does not,” Charlotte Department of Transportation wrote.

Thirty-nine states use the flashing yellow left-turn arrow. More than 500 locations in North Carolina have one. Charlotte has 170 intersections with these signals. The first arrived in 2004 at Johnston Road and the Interstate 485 Inner Loop.

Now if we could only figure out how to stop throwing away minutes at red lights when the streets are clear. Suggestions?

Karen Sullivan: kmsulliv@charlotteobserver.com, 704-358-5532, @Sullivan_kms