With the holidays coming up, many of us will be on the road to visit friends and family. Every driver has faced the quandary of what to do when the green traffic light up ahead shifts to yellow while you are at speed: do you speed up to make it through before it turns red, or slam on the brakes in an attempt to stop before entering the intersection? “Rules” regarding what drivers are supposed to do are often stated by back seat drivers with great authority, but on what basis? What is the real story on yellow lights in New Jersey?
When questioned, most drivers understand the basic gist of what the different colors in a tri-color light are meant to communicate. Most people will give some variation of “green means go,” “red means stop,” and yellow means “slow down” or “caution.” Under the law, however, yellow means “stop.” Specifically, it means “stop before entering the intersection or nearest crosswalk, unless when the yellow appears the vehicle or street car is so close to the intersection that with suitable brakes it cannot be stopped in safety.”
That definition still seems to leave some wiggle room though, doesn’t it? What constitutes being so close to a changed light that a driver cannot safely stop? And what if your brakes prove to be “unsuitable” for stopping within that distance? Under New Jersey statute, when travelling at 20mph, 50 feet is considered a safe distance to stop. There is little case law on this point however, thus drivers are well-advised to abide by the maxim that yellow means stop, unless it would be unsafe to do so.
If you receive a traffic ticket for running a light and believe that you were not able to stop safely, then you may want to contact a lawyer to argue your case, especially if you have prior moving violations. Violating a traffic statute can result in a fine from $50-$400, depending on the circumstances under which the violation occurred. Such violations also carry a risk of up to 15 days in jail! It also results in two motor vehicle points and two insurance points. However, if the violation causes you to have an accident, it will result in five insurance points if the insurer pays out more than $500.
Blinking yellow lights: A blinking yellow light means “proceed only with caution.” Proceeding in an incautious manner could result in an unsafe or careless driving citation.
Broken traffic light: If a traffic light is not working, then the driver must behave at that intersection the same way they are obligated to if there is a stop sign.
Funeral Processions: Funeral Processions must yield to traffic lights in accordance with the law and being part
of a funeral procession is not a defense to running a red light or improperly observing an yellow light.
 N.J.S.A. 39:4-105.
 N.J.S.A. 39:4-203.
 N.J.S.A. 39:4-203
 N.J.A.C. 13:19-1; N.J.A.C. 11:3-34-5.
 N.J.S.A. 39:4-81.
 Pohi v. Topal, 156 N.J. Super. 27 (App. Div. 1978).