We all know how traffic lights work, right? Or do we… 🤔
Designed to automatically control the traffic flow at busy junctions, traffic lights work by alternating which direction has priority. Vehicles approaching from one direction can continue moving, while traffic from another must wait until the signals change.
Traffic lights, or 'traffic signals' as they are often called, are also seen at roundabouts and pedestrian crossings and as temporary instalments at roadworks.
When you’re learning to drive, you’ll become familiar with traffic lights pretty quickly, as, along with other road signs, you’ll encounter them on almost every journey. If you’re taking lessons from an approved driving instructor, they will ensure you’re comfortable with the sequence of traffic lights.
Here’s a quick explainer 👇
We all know that the colour green means ‘go’ and red tells us to ‘stop’, but the traffic light sequence isn’t quite that simple, and can frequently cause problems for learner drivers.
It’s essential to approach every set of traffic lights with caution, using your mirrors and indicators as necessary. You don’t know when they will change or if another driver will go straight through them.
Lights can fail, too, especially with temporary sets, and if both sets are stuck on green, for example, you need to react quickly but safely. (We’ve got more on this in a bit.)
While approaching the lights, be aware of where the colour is in the sequence, as this allows you to anticipate what is likely to happen and prepare for it. If the lights have been green for a while, for example, you should be ready to stop.
However, you should never speed up on the approach to traffic lights in the hope of them being green when you reach them.
Knowing the traffic light sequence is vital, and questions regarding it may be included in your theory driving test. Here’s how it goes, and what the colours mean:
Let’s talk through the traffic light sequence through in a little more detail.
RED - Stop
When preparing to stop at a red traffic light, pull up just before the solid white ‘stop’ line on the road.
Be aware that in some cases, there is a separate section marked off for cyclists, which drivers should avoid. The reserved section allows cyclists to be positioned safely ahead of the other traffic, giving them time to move off when the lights change to green.
If it’s a multi-directional junction with several sets of traffic lights and you think you’ll be waiting a while, apply the handbrake and put the car into neutral gear instead of sitting on the brake.
PS: red and amber lights together indicate that you should prepare to move off when the light turns green.
GREEN - Go if it’s safe
When the lights change to green, you can drive forward if it’s safe to do so. Always be aware of the other traffic around you, and use your judgement.
AMBER - Stop if safe to do so
An amber light usually indicates you should stop if it’s safe - although if the light goes from green to amber when you’re close ot the lights you may go through, as braking sharply could lead to an accident.
Sometimes the lights will flash amber before changing to green, especially at pedestrian crossings. In this case, if the crossing is clear of pedestrians, you can proceed.
What do traffic lights with arrows mean
Traffic lights on roundabouts, or busy roads, often include arrows pointing left, right or straight on. Called filter traffic lights, they filter the traffic flow and let road users know who gets priority.
Whichever directional arrow is green, the traffic in that lane or going that direction can proceed. If the light for straight-on is red, and the right-hand arrow is green, if it’s safe to do so, those turning right can proceed, for example. If the arrow for your direction is green, you can go regardless of what the other lights are showing.
You’ll come across various traffic lights used in different situations to instruct road users, and it’s necessary to learn these to pass your test. Here’s a few examples.
Flashing red lights
Often seen at level crossings and fire stations, these indicate that you must stop for the duration of the flashing lights.
Motorway light signals
Traffic control lights on motorways, or other fast-moving roads, usually appear over the lane they are intended for or on the side of the road if applicable to all lanes. They can include temporary speed limit signs, warnings of reduced visibility ahead, such as fog, lane closures or instructions to change lanes.
Traffic lights can fail, and although this mainly occurs with temporary lights, permanent lights can break too.
Treat a broken lights situation like an unmarked junction. Make sure it’s safe to proceed, and with your lights on to ensure everyone can see you, move forward. Remember to be cautious as not everyone may know what to do in this eventuality.
In the case of temporary traffic lights, if the road ahead is clear, switch on your headlights so that everyone knows you’re there and move forward. If you can’t see the road ahead, wind down your window and listen for any approaching traffic, make sure your lights are on, and drive forward carefully.
See, we said traffic lights were more complicated than you’d think, but with a bit of practice, you’ll soon be tackling them like a pro!
Now that you’ve got the basics, it’s time to start thinking about getting some driving practice in. Cuvva’s learner driver insurance could be the perfect fit, with pay-as-you-go cover available for six hours per day. If you’ve already passed, we’ve got ultra-flexible short-term cover, too. Whatever you’re after, you can get a quote in minutes.