March 1, 2012

A group of researchers at Oregon State University announced a new study recently. They will study the “dilemma zone,” that brief stretch of road before a traffic light when the driver sees a yellow light and wonders, “Should I break, or should I go for it?” Answering “yes” to going for it reportedly causes 2,000 fatal motor vehicle accidents every year.

There is a scene in the Jeff Bridges movie “Starman” when his character, from another planet, takes over the driving. When he comes up on a yellow light, he hits the gas. The car flies through the intersection, missing a truck by a hair and crossing railroad tracks a mere nanosecond before a train barrels through. He has learned the rules of the road by watching his human companion: “Red means stop. Green means go. Yellow means go very fast.”

It’s as funny a moment as it is an uncomfortable one. The truth is that many drivers will gun it, because they think they can make it. Many, however, do not.

Oregon State engineers will study the dilemma zone rather than the driver’s decision process. Their goal is to understand the zone better so they can improve the timing of yellow lights.

Drivers and pedestrians may not realize it, but there are no nationwide standards for the duration of a yellow light. As a result, it is extremely difficult to predict how long the light will last. Even if the driver knows that, on average, a yellow light lasts between three and six seconds, it doesn’t mean he or she is any good at judging speed and distance.

In our next post, we will go through some tips for drivers from an Oregon State professor who is also a traffic engineer.

Source: Men’s Health, “Never Get in a Car Crash Again,” Paige Greenfield, March 21, 2012


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