Patterson Crash: Here's How Those 'Flashing Yellows' Are Supposed to Work

We take a closer look at the Auburn Hills intersection and the turn signal involved in the crash of the car transporting L. Brooks Patterson last week.

The flashing yellow turn signal at the intersection where Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson was injured in a crash last week was installed four years ago as part of a national effort to make all turn signals the same.

In all, 90 left turn signals in the county now use a flashing yellow arrow during a left-turn sequence. Yet still, there is confusion — and controversy — about how the signals work and why they are used.

As Patterson recovers from his third and final surgery to repair orthopedic injuries suffered in the Friday afternoon crash, Patch offers a tutorial and explanation of the signal at the crux of the incident.

Why they work

The turn signals were introduced to Oakland County as part of a Federal Highway Administration (FHA) mandate toward consistency in traffic signals.

"There was a hodgepodge of different styles of left turn signals all over the country," said Craig Bryson, spokesperson for the Road Commission for Oakland County. 

Michigan was one of few states that used a flashing red arrow for left turns. This flashing yellow arrow was found by the FHA to be safer and better for allowing traffic to move through an intersection. 

Each time the road commission installs or routinely maintains a signal in the county, the yellow arrow is included.

The flashing yellow turn signal allows motorists to slow down, yield and then turn left when there is an available gap in the oncoming traffic. With the flashing red arrow, the motorist was expected to fully stop before turning left.

How do they work?

According to the road commission, the new left-turn signals operate in the following six-step cycle:

  1. Steady green arrow: left turns are allowed, opposing traffic has a red signal.
  2. Steady yellow arrow: the left-turn signal is about to turn red, so prepare to stop.
  3. Steady red arrow: left-turn motorists must stop.
  4. Flashing yellow arrow: oncoming through-traffic has a green light; left-turn motorists may turn when there is a sufficient gap in traffic.
  5. Steady yellow arrow: the left-turn signal is about to turn red, oncoming through traffic also has a solid yellow signal.
  6. Steady red arrow: left-turn motorists must stop.

A detailed explainer is attached to this report or can be downloaded at www.rcocweb.org.

The learning curve

When news about Patterson's crash was reported on Patch, some readers were quick to blame the turn signal.

"Sounds like one of those yellow flashing arrows," wrote Jan Smith in a comment on the . "Some drivers are confused by them and will speed up, thinking it's going to turn red. My dad was nearly killed by such a driver. Maybe we should stick with red and green, so there is no doubt."

"Maybe now that an important person was injured, 'they' will do away with those flashing yellow arrows," commented Carol Lynn.

While Bryson acknowledged the confusion, he said that his agency has not seen a correlation between the new signals and intersection accidents. 

"The FHA went through tons of research, because they wanted to find a universal signal that would be safe," he said. "Like anything new, there may be a learning curve."

The intersection of Walton and Opdyke roads has the third-highest crash frequency in the city of Auburn Hills and ranks 93rd in terms of county crashes, according to traffic data compiled by the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments. From 2007-2011 there were 21.8 crashes per year at that intersection.  The majority of the accidents caused property damage only; 28 caused minor injuries and two caused "incapacitating injuries."

Since 2008, when the yellow turn signal was installed, crashes have remained steady; though they appear to have increased after that year, it's likely because of other factors, Bryson said. For one, along with the converted signal the intersection was widened in 2008, meaning more traffic is traveling through.

"A lot of attention has been put on this particular intersection," he said. "But even though we haven't seen the police report, it seems as though driver error may have been to blame."

According to an Auburn Hills police report, a preliminary investigation showed that the driver of the car that crashed into Patterson's car failed to yield on the flashing yellow turn signal. That car was traveling west on Walton, turning onto southbound Opdyke.

The accident investigation has been turned over the Oakland County prosecutor's office.

Meanwhile, Patterson, 73, remains at McLaren Oakland Hospital in Pontiac.

Have a "get well" wish to offer Patterson? .

 "Brooks has gone through his third and final orthopedic repair,” said Tressa Gardner, director of emergency services at the hospital, in a statement on Wednesday afternoon. "The next step is to start our rehab therapy and the prognosis is good."

Daryl Patrishkoff August 17, 2012 at 07:56 PM
Kristin, This is a great article about these changes in the traffic lights. It is important we all know this and learn how to abide by these changes. Can we all just agree that humans make mistakes; yes it was foolish to drive without a seatbelt. I am an engineer and seen and conducted many crash tests, seatbelts save lives! Criticizing people after the fact does not help. I have done many stupid things in life, but encouragement not criticism was appreciated. Can we all just wish these humans who got hurt the best and hope they fully recover. I have them in my thoughts and prayers, this is a lesson in life, and it can change in an instant. So enjoy every day as if it was your last.
mollie August 18, 2012 at 02:25 AM
The flashing yellow is secondary in this story. How is it that a police officer and the Oakland County Executive are riding around with NO SEATBELTS!!??!. It is the LAW in Michigan to buckle up.
Whatever August 18, 2012 at 07:43 AM
Do you never drive anywhere except in Michigan? Michigan and Connecticut were the only states that still had a flashing red for a left turn signal when the FHA mandated the change. I think the real lesson to be learned is to slow down, pay attention, and take driving seriously.
Whatever August 18, 2012 at 07:44 AM
Not using a seatbelt is a choice, not a mistake.
Darren Whittaker August 18, 2012 at 01:14 PM
Oh, please. There's no secret code, nor advanced math necessary here. If you have a valid driver's license, you know (or SHOULD) what red, green, and yellow lights mean. Beyond that, as stated above, common sense should take over and one should proceed when safe to do so. All this whining about "we were never educated about this!!" is indicative of a larger problem - no one wants to THINK anymore. This is increasingly evident while driving most anywhere today. And to Linda: "We've all been programmed" to speed up at a yellow light??!! Don't know what "school" you learned at, but mine never involved "programming". You do what makes sense, requiring your full attention when driving. Yes, it IS driver error, and no one else's. Sheesh.
Darren Whittaker August 18, 2012 at 01:17 PM
Great example, Brooksie. The peasants need to obey the law - but those of us who are "special", not so much. One wonders what other laws he believes himself to be exempt from...
Haulin T Male August 18, 2012 at 06:06 PM
I tot. disagree, it was on the claw channel, In the quarterly "What's happening Booklet"that is mailed to every postal cust. if you get mail, you got one of these.( the one that has all the coming activities and events, and phone numbers, ever read it, there's more in there then you think also in the year book at the Fourth of July, time, along with the white events sheet, with days and Times. I got tired seeing it, I know to this day, there are a stack of 2 1/2 x 6's in the lobby of City Hall. one of those entered my house some how, trying to say in one of those mailings, also it was explained at a City Council Meeting, by the Chief. My Freshman Yr. at and all boys School, the Prefect of Disciplined, reminded the incoming newbies, stop by the main Board, and READ, "Ignorance is no Excuse" another words the burden is on you..... same with safety, ever see painted lines stop a car? just because your in between the lines, the burden for safety is YOUR's the first Statement in U S - D O T ...Safety is your responsibility....... your on here, whats wrong with Goggling "new yellow flashing traffic lights"` meaning you use a computer, use it....... don't blame, all this is for all of you that posted a reply.......... I f I was a cop, I would cut no slack, they have been out a long time.
Haulin T Male August 18, 2012 at 06:10 PM
Kelly, your smarter beyond your years, If you read these poor is me, bla bla. Justr google new traffic lights, or pay me 3 k and I will teach you, after all you did in College.
Haulin T Male August 18, 2012 at 06:15 PM
Sorry I just read THE DEATH OF COMMON SENSE, it is so true, now you know why 30 yr olds are moving back in their parents and the parents are the reason they can't stand on there 2 feet now.......thank God they weren't born back in the 1700's, we still would be serving the red coats and paying taxes to the Queen.
Haulin T Male August 18, 2012 at 06:24 PM
Yes C C, read my reply further down........... ignorance is no excuse. there was stuff from the city.......... if you don't know some thing, ever hear of Google,? or Oakland co. road commission, M-dot, U S. Dot ? In Europe they had so many signs, they now are taking them down, "It's called personal space" bikes cars and pedestrians are using the same space. it has cut down on speeding, hint the bigger the vehicle the more at fault you are..........K I S S .......... keep it simple ........
mdt48302 August 18, 2012 at 06:42 PM
It's both.
DCC August 18, 2012 at 06:57 PM
Whatever happened to "click it or ticket"?
Courteney Gettel August 18, 2012 at 07:11 PM
I agree with Darryl....what happened to "Click it or ticket?" I am sure he or anyone else who was in the car will get one. So beyond STUPID!!!!!!
chris murray August 18, 2012 at 11:45 PM
I've encountered that at some intersections as well so this is where the confusion comes in. They can say they are all the same but they are not.
Haulin T Male August 19, 2012 at 02:13 AM
Of I see a yellow, to me it means the on coming has a green, ot means caution proceed at your own risk........... yellow does not mean the on coming is red. I don't ass u me any thing, I do what my directional says.. why ass u me , on the freeway, you assume the guy next to you as had a wheel balanced , going 75 next to you......... don't you
Haulin T Male August 19, 2012 at 02:15 AM
No one has the $$$$ to change all at the same time....... it's the do me now generation, the smart phoners .........
Haulin T Male August 19, 2012 at 02:17 AM
Take all the signs down, ppl qill drive slower and safer....... ever hear a deer (body) hit a car ?
Haulin T Male August 19, 2012 at 02:19 AM
then more cars will try and get through....... their not dumb
Haulin T Male August 19, 2012 at 02:24 AM
You use to go in and get your renewal, take the test, of common sense..... come home at dinner I got one wrong. I never new............... now there is no test, and you go in every 9 or 12 yr's.......... going in and getting your plates (tabs) they use to give you reminders................. hummmmmmm
Clawson Citizen August 19, 2012 at 01:35 PM
thank you Miriam! I actually printed OUT Kristin's directions in the article! And will put in my car! That way, I can show this to the "know it all idiots" who HONK at you! when they THINK you are supposed to go through the yellow arrows! According to this, you have 6 steps you are supposed to remember while watching 4 corners of the intersection as well. I even had a man! tap my rear bumper, because HE THOUGHT I should went through the intersection, when I knew I should NOT! As for the other commenter about this being on the Clawson Claw-TV? That is ONLY on WOW OR Comcast Cable! NOT U-Verse Cable, Why doesn't Clawson have a contract with U-Verse? I used to watch all the city council meetings etc on there, until I HAD to switch from the misery of Comcrap to U-Verse. And yes, I get the same quarterly booklets AND do read them! I must have gotten the one where there was a typo! Because I never read about Clawson changing ALL their lights over. AND the interection I refer to is for both Troy & Clawson, at Maple & Livernois! Guess that must have fallen under Troy's authority. Love all the "know it all" perfect drivers on here. SMH! BUT ONE thing everyone is right on, why NOT SEATBELTS?! I about fell over when that came to light! And yes, that should be a not brainer, tickets for every person who did NOT have one ON!
Haulin T Male August 19, 2012 at 02:35 PM
AT&T does not will not share (tippin? stipend) fees that they charge or collect in your bill with the cities) which means ALL the upgrades and 6 remote cameras, plus other upgrades were all done with kick backs to Clawson from Comcast and Wow, as per contract. AT&T sends theirs to Corporate. Evidently you didn't read the channel guide before you switch, again you made the call.......... certainly Not the City of Clawson's. would you allow some one in for free? and use your city property? You chose to send your money out of town, that is what is great about America, individual decisions, then others get to be blamed because of your decisions ........ can't help you there, know all the facts before choosing, " Buyer Beware" all I can say, people knew that when at&t made their pitch at City Council a yr before starting in Clawson, it is State wide with AT&T, don't feel bad other clawsonites got caught, part of that Do me now mentality........ note I didn't reply with any emotion, why the "tude from you, all facts , nothing but the facts, pretty black and white ...........
Haulin T Male August 19, 2012 at 02:59 PM
Claw. Citizen: Cities do not have control over Traffic lights. (except to ask and qualify for one, cost = 145,000, plus 14,500 maint. fee a yr. That could be per city(?) (B'ham is switching to all L E D's to not have that fee the bulbs last like 2 yrs, led's last 10 to 14 yr's) M-DOT, through Oak. Co. Rd Commission, in this Co. does. I didn't know how the process worked either till I did research, and natural curiosity, The Statement . about Clawson changed the lights, or "I guess that was Troy, is also false, reason being, falls under the the first Sentence of this post. One part you are right on, Main and 15 mile is Troy and Clawson, and Crooks and 14 mile is Clawson and Royal Oak...... again answer is posted with no emotion, so why is your's, you os I will not change any thing, but as "we" could..........was it in the mayors col. or City Managers ? it was there. BTW, if I excluded my selve from city goings on, I'd be all over city hall, cause all info is there. and posted by law. city charter and ord. as for the yellow lights I beleive they are nation wide, and Mich and one other state are the last5 to implement, cause of the money crunch..........
Clawson Citizen August 20, 2012 at 06:06 AM
thank you to Haulin' for the overblown explanation of At&t reasons for not having local city channel. I just wanted to know that's all. I found it on the internet anyways to watch council meetings being that I am disabled and cannot go to meetings in person. If I had not had sooo many problems with Comcast, I would have stayed with them. Like someone else wrote on here, these lights are confusing, still to a lot of people, were not aware of the changes. No reason to beat people up over it. Like I said, I DID print out Kristen's article to have now & remember to follow ALL six steps. Hers was the best, answer to date,so thank you Kristen! And YES! it is not a choice, not to wear seat belts in Michigan. That floored me more, when that came out the next day of the accident. Why would the police even have to wait to decide on a ticket, on that part of the accident? is a good question. And Haulin-I will totally agree with you on how far apart drivers are tested for driver's licenses!! Laws do change in that long time span between tests. You are 100% correct.
Haulin T Male August 20, 2012 at 02:18 PM
C C, when I know some thing cause of chance or due diligence , I like to explain fully so as to leave no side bar innuendo's. If what I said was full blown, we would of had the Mother of all Storms if I had. told you , you can watch it steaming on the comp.
Haulin T Male August 20, 2012 at 02:22 PM
as far as people still finding the yellow lights a challenge, I wonder what they find Life, since your the driver of that also. I am not the sharpest pin in the cushion, when I first saw the "new yellow light" I said, oh thats new......... this must be what they were talking about, ended up doing what it said.......... (common sense as "it")
random August 20, 2012 at 04:44 PM
Te easiest solution to the left turn problem would be if everybody obeyed the law that has always applied to every intersection no matter what lane you are in: don't enter into an intersection you can not clear imediately. People creep up into the intersection causing confusion. If you can't clear the intersection, don't enter it.
Patdallashirampatch Angle August 23, 2012 at 11:49 AM
I just happen to occasionally keep up on Troy news, but I live in Georgia, where we now have the second-worst traffic light system in the country. How the heck are out-of-towners supposed to know what to do? I honestly thought I knew all the variations of turn signals, so I wouldn't think I had any learning to do. I agree with the idea behind this, that we need a nationally consistent system, but we also need national awareness of it.
Kevin Moser August 23, 2012 at 12:54 PM
No, increasing the time on the oncoming red would give more time for driver making left hand to do so without turning infront of someone jumping the red. The way it is now, people get left in the intersection and light goes solid red for person trying to turn. They are either going to run the red and chance someone jumping thyellow in oncoming lane or sit in the middle of the intersection until the light cycles back to green. Problem is most are use to edging into intersection and wait until yellow and traffic clears to finish their turn. Now it goes red and strands people.
Kevin Moser August 23, 2012 at 12:58 PM
But.... waht about people waiting to turn that edge into intersection (as we were taught in drivers Ed) suddenly have arrow turn to red? Now you are stuck if someone is behind you and you are now hampering those trying to turn left from opposite direction? They need to give opposing traffic a red a few seconds before turning turn lane red. That gives someone jumping light a chance to clear intersection and person turning a chance to get out of the intersection.
Kevin Moser August 23, 2012 at 01:03 PM
As far as seat belts, I should first say I have allways been a big fan of Brooks, He should have had his on. He should follow the laws he enfored to the rest of us for many years, than chose to break the law by not wearing one. He should have demended his driver cop or not to wear one. He prosecuted people for many years that did not abide by laws, so he himself should at least abide bty them.


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