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[Pressure points] Yellow light just turned on. Should I go or stop?

S. Korea's top court says a switch to yellow before the intersection means one thing — stop. Not all drivers agree.

By Shin Ji-hye

Published : June 11, 2024 - 13:39

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The traffic sign just turned yellow and you find yourself in the “dilemma zone,” where it is too late to stop before the stop line. Would you stop or speed up?

Recently, South Korea’s top court ruled that drivers must stop, rekindling a long-standing debate.

In its decision early May concerning a case involving a car driver who chose to continue through a yellow light and collided with two motorcyclists in 2021, the Supreme Court stated that when the yellow light turns on before a car enters the intersection, the car must stop. Failure to do so should be regarded as a violation of traffic law.

By saying so, the top court overturned lower courts’ decision that sided with the driver and acquitted them of a traffic law violation.

The driver pointed out that the car would have ended up stopping in the middle of the intersection if it had stopped for the yellow light. The court did not elaborate on what they should do once the car was stationary in the middle of the intersection, only that they should stop.

Reactions from drivers here are sharply divided. While some say it should serve as a wake-up call to many drivers who speed up at yellow light, others say they are more confused now as to what to do.

‘A yellow sign means to stop, not to hurry through’

Yoon Suk-hoon, 34, who works for a marketing firm, said, “A yellow light means to stop, not to hurry through. When I see a yellow light, I normally stop. I don’t hesitate about whether to go or not.”

“While I do believe that traffic is a flow, it seems that people tend to underestimate the significance of yellow lights too much,” he said. "In the city, where you are driving at around 50 kilometers per hour, it’s unlikely that you will end up stopping in the middle of the intersection, although you could cross the stop line a little bit."

Chung Kyung-il, a lawyer specializing in traffic accidents, said that drivers passing through intersections on a yellow light are divided into two types: those who accelerate to pass quickly because they fear the light will change, and those who slow down with their foot on the brake. The Supreme Court’s judgment encouraged the latter behavior, he said.

He noted that drivers should adopt a driving culture where they decelerate rather than accelerate when anticipating a signal change at intersections.

The top court’s decision requiring cars to stop at a yellow light is not the first of its kind. Earlier, in 2016, when a car collided with another vehicle at an intersection during a yellow light, the court ruled that, “A driver cannot decide whether to stop or proceed when the light changes to yellow before entering the intersection.” In other words, drivers just have only one choice – stop.

‘Unrealistic and potentially causing more accidents’

Park Ji-eun, who has driven a car for 10 years, said she cannot understand the Supreme Court’s verdict.

“It could be understandable if traffic signs here showed how many seconds are left before the light changes. In reality, where we don’t have that system, when all cars stop suddenly at yellow lights, it could cause traffic accidents,” she said. “The judgment seems to be detached from reality.”

Lawyer Han Moon-chul, who represented the defendant, said on his YouTube channel that even if the car drove at a speed of 40 kilometers per hour, which is the legal speed, the car couldn’t avoid entering the intersection.

The government of Queensland, Australia, whose figures are also used in some driving textbooks here, calculates the minimum stopping distance at 40 kph to be 26 meters.

He said the court ruling as “very dangerous” as it could be interpreted that a driver always has to brake even if the stop line is close.

The lower courts, which acquitted the car driver, said when the yellow light turned on, the distance between the car and the stop line was about 8.3 meters and the collision with motorcyclists would have happened even if the driver had hit the brakes.