On average, Payson motorists facing a yellow traffic signal are given 3.79 seconds to make a crucial decision. But in many cases, the yellow warning light creates a gray area of responsibility for drivers and police.
For a Payson mother and her daughter, the decision to turn left on a yellow light abruptly ended a planned shopping trip to Wal-Mart Wednesday afternoon.
The intersection in front of the Payson super center at West Rumsey Drive and Highway 87 has been the scene of numerous yellow-light related accidents, with two occurring in less than three weeks.
Whether to proceed or stop at a yellow light ultimately comes down to the driver's personal judgment -- a decision that must be made in less than 4 seconds.
"The time (of the yellow light) is determined by the size of the intersection and the speed limit," said David Leckliter, traffic signal supervisor for ADOT, western region. "There's a formula, and it can't go below 3 seconds."
The Roundup timed each intersection in town and found that all yellow lights were holding at least three seconds, with some showing longer for faster speed limits.
"We do maintenance every two months to check times, clearances and all the power distribution," Leckliter said. "Times cannot change unless you manually change them -- they won't change on their own."
Deciding who is at fault in a yellow-light accident isn't an easy task for police.
"It's a gray area," explains Commander Don Engler of the Payson Police Department. "The way we usually make the determination is where the accident occurred in the intersection, the damage to the vehicles, and where the vehicles were positioned at the time of the accident -- and then we try to determine fault."
Intersections become more dangerous when drivers have different ideas about what actions to take when a traffic signal turns yellow.
Section 28-645 of Arizona Revised Statutes relating to traffic signals is a little dim when it comes to explaining the required action at a yellow light. It reads: "... movement is being terminated or that a red indication will be exhibited immediately thereafter when vehicular traffic shall not enter the intersection."
The ADOT driver's license manual sheds a brighter light on the yellow light dilemma. It reads: "A steady yellow light is a warning that the light is about to turn red. If you have not entered the intersection, you should come to a safe stop. If you are already in the intersection, you should continue moving and clear it safely. Speeding up to ‘beat the light' is illegal and could cause an accident."
While technically illegal, it's not uncommon to see drivers racing ahead to beat the light. Engler explained that some drivers use the excuse that the light turned yellow too quickly and they didn't have time to stop.
"A driver approaching the intersection has the responsibility to control the speed of their vehicle, so they can stop in time," Engler said. "Theoretically, if you aren't in the intersection when the yellow light deploys, you should not enter.
"I would encourage our motoring public to give those traffic signals a little leeway, especially as traffic continues to increase in our community, and
just be prepared for the unexpected." Engler said.
Watching for the unexpected is a common theme for young drivers learning the rules of the road.
Sixteen-year-old Marco Solano of Payson has been driving for about a year (counting his time with a learner's permit), and interprets the yellow light this way: "It pretty much means stop," he said. "But it depends on how long it's been yellow. If it's been yellow long enough -- more than 2 seconds -- then I know I don't have enough time, so I stop. It's better to stop."
However, Solano doesn't think the yellow signal lights stay on long enough. "I think it would be better if they went about 6 or 7 seconds. That would give drivers a longer time to get across the intersection."
Joni Dalton, 47, has been driving on Arizona roads for 31 years.
"If the yellow lights were any longer, I think people would totally take advantage," she said. "Way too many people abuse the yellow lights already, in that they just continue through the intersection even when there's someone waiting to turn left. They go right through, without any regard for the person making a left. It happens a lot. There always seems to be an accident at the Wal-Mart intersection."
Dalton said she's been fortunate to avoid yellow-light collisions over the years. "I always assume someone is going to run the light," she said.
Whether such an assumption could have avoided Wednesday's accident is unclear. No fault has been determined as police continue to piece the puzzle together.
"It's still under investigation," Engler said. "We haven't issued any citations as of this point. We want to look at the totality of the circumstances and then we'll render a decision on fault.
"The best we can tell, the light was yellow for both vehicles. The sedan was in the left turn lane preparing to turn left onto W. Rumsey Drive (into Wal-Mart). The white Ford pickup was southbound on Highway 87."
According to police reports, the 40-year-old male driver of the 1-ton truck was pulling a trailer carrying home improvement supplies. His 3-year-old son was in the back seat buckled into a child safety restraint.
The driver told police that when the light turned yellow he didn't think he would be able to stop in time because of the weight of the trailer, so he sped up to make it through the intersection.
The compact sedan carrying the mother and daughter turned left at the same time.
The mother and daughter were both taken by ambulance to Payson Regional Medical Center. The driver of the truck and his son were not injured.
Payson yellow light durations by intersection
Highway 87 at Wal-Mart 3.73 seconds
Highway 87 at casino entrance 4.12 seconds
Highway 87 and Bonita Street 3.47 seconds
Highway 87 and Main Street 3.48 seconds
Highway 87 and Forest Drive 4.22 seconds
Highway 87 and Highway 260 3.49 seconds
Highway 260 at Wells Fargo 3.49 seconds
Highway 260 and Granite Dells 4.31 seconds
Highway 260 and Tyler Parkway 5.53 seconds