Search this site:


May 25, 2005 12:03 AM

Broken: British traffic lights

Cimg0318_25OK, just one more on international traffic signage...

Andrew Rollason writes:

I took this picture of a set of traffic lights when I was back in London a few weeks ago.  There are many like this, and this is not the worst example by far.

This combination of lights means "at this time you may go forward, but you should wait to turn right (but not in this lane)".  It must be part of a scheme to separate locals -- who have learnt to respond to the patterns of light instinctively -- from everyone else -- who can be seen screaching to halt at the red light, much to the chagrin of the locals and my amusement from the pavement/sidewalk.

While the logic is technically correct (if you know that green arrows have priority over red circles which in turn take precedence over green circles) it's not particularly intuitive and it just doesn't feel right to pass the red light without slowing or stopping.  If you do make it past, don't look to your right as you'll see another signal for the same junction indicating a "stop" in all directions.


One half of your car goes forward. and one half of your car stops.

Posted by: Administrator00192 at May 25, 2005 12:27 AM

The light and others are real simple. You may go in any direction that is green. In the UK you cannot do the equivalent of right on red. It took me a long time get comfortable going against a red light after moving to the US.

The other difference with British traffic lights is that they give you a few seconds warning before turning green. That means people look around and move the moment the lights go full green. In the US there is usually a time lag after the lights go green and people start moving. (Where I drive anyway :-)

Posted by: Roger Binns at May 25, 2005 12:48 AM

The pictured example would confuse me, too, but I suspect it's uncommon. I don't often see this exact configuration of lights (oh, I'm in the UK, BTW).

Usually they're in a 'L'-shape. The upright (red-amber-green) is clearly for all traffic, but an extra green arrow, on the appropriate side, indicates that traffic in that lane, turning in that direction, are treated differently.

Somehow that layout is more intuitive; one can readily match the lane one's in to the signal one should watch.

Posted by: NRT at May 25, 2005 05:19 AM

If the explanation given is correct, why not just have a green arrow pointing forward and a red arrow pointing to the right, indicating that you can go forward but not right? In the US, the equivalent would be a large green circular light saying you can go forward, then proximal to the corner, lower down on the post, over the right lane, would be a smaller right-facing arrow in red (or green, depending on the case).

Or, maybe I'm just dense.

Posted by: Mac at May 25, 2005 08:25 AM


In the US, a red light means stop, do not go, if you go you will hit whoever is also going at the same time.

If I had encountered this and not read this post first, I would be at a dead stop, wondering why people are honking behind me, afraid to pull forward.

In the US, many left-turn signals are programmed to be red and green-arrowed at the same time. This makes it clear that the turn lane may go but everyone going straight must stop. But I've never seen a signal with a red circle and a green straight arrow.

I agree with Mac, a red arrow would make more sense than a red circle. However, since many people are colorblind, there must be at least two different lights for the arrow, properly ordered, so that colorblind drivers know that the red arrow is in fact red.

Posted by: Jay at May 25, 2005 09:29 AM

It's the Brits that are broken (har de har har, just kidding)

Posted by: Robert A. Dugger at May 25, 2005 09:29 AM


In the US, for most jurisdictions that I know of, a red light does mean stop. But it does not mean "do not go", as you are allowed to turn right on a red after stopping if the way is clear.

In the jurisdiction that I usually drive in, left turns on red are also allowed in the case of an intersection of two one-way streets.

Posted by: Carlos Gomez at May 25, 2005 09:37 AM

Ah I recognise that - it's outside embankment tube station, under hungerford bridge...

Anyway, I can see how different light systems can cause confusion for people changing countries. I believe the thinking behind this originally was probably that it should failsafe: Far better you stop when you should go than go when you should stop. :-)

Note also that you can't turn left on a red in the UK either - an extra level of complication to deal with in the signage...

Posted by: Mat at May 25, 2005 10:36 AM

Ok... never mind the figuring out the roundabouts, never mind the having to drive on the left side of the road, on the "wrong" side of the car, nevermind the fact many of us "Yanks" cannot drive manual transmission (I do), throw confusing traffic lights on top if it all, too!! I encountered all this while in Nassau (I live in Miami)... My husband drove, I flat out refused.

Posted by: Lady Person at May 25, 2005 10:51 AM

As others have said, this is backwards (not broken) from the US. In the US, the red/yellow/green lights control cars going straight thru the intersection; turns are controlled with arrows. So the US equivalent would be a green light with a red right-arrow. I personally wouldn't know WTF to do if I were confronted with the lights pictured on this page.

Posted by: Jacques Troux at May 25, 2005 11:56 AM

Oh my god, the use of red arrows would be so confusing its untrue. Our system of lights works fine, I'm surprised a picture of a roundabout hasn't appeared on this site yet with all the americans wondering what its all about (go in a circle you're having a laugh they would say)

Look up the magic roundabout Swindon in google if you want to be confused whilst driving.

Posted by: Johnny2Shoes at May 25, 2005 12:13 PM

No one says your system of lights don't work out well, the point was, it's confusing for those who are not familiar with it. And don't assume that we don't have "roundabouts" in America. We do. We call them traffic circles.

Moving on, if I were driving along this road and saw this light, I would hesitate because while I would think it was okay for me to go straight, I would wonder what the red light was for. I would assume 2 things:

1) The light is malfunctioning

2) It's not for me because I have a green arrow.

It is a little confusing but if not too difficult to figure out that you are allowed to go straight.

Now, if I were turning right? That's a whole different story. Of course, before I ever drove anywhere in another country, I think I'd study up on traffic rules before I did so. As I have done.

Posted by: Faolan at May 25, 2005 02:37 PM

i think the british all drive crazy anyway, so how is this different?

if you go to the u.k., use a taxi.

Posted by: Bob at May 25, 2005 02:55 PM

I'm from the UK and find the picture a little confusing, but I get the impression it would all make sense if I was actually there. It looks like there's a complete red-amber-green set with an extra green arrow indicating that it's ok to go straight ahead when these are on red. To be honest, it isn't a very common combination of lights. The L shaped set in the background, with a green arrow pointing right next to the normal green light, is more common and is used at junctions where people can turn right when traffic going straight ahead is on red.

As mentioned briefly already, British and US traffic lights also follow a slightly different sequence. While US lights go from green to amber to red, then straight back to green again, lights in the UK go from green to amber to red, then to red and amber together for a few seconds before switching to green. Not sure what real advantage this is now I think about it...

Posted by: bluenettle at May 25, 2005 03:03 PM

Just to clear up a couple of things: in NYC, you cannot make a right on red, so it's not true that in all of the US you can make a right on a red.

Also, I see one advantage to the UK system of going from red to amber to gives you time to rev up your motor for a big burn out. Cool.

Posted by: Mac at May 25, 2005 05:03 PM

I think the reason we all think that this is broken is because we are used to our traffic lights. If there was some UK This is broken, they may have our traffic lights on there!

But if I was in UK and I saw this traffic light, I would look at the other lights and see what they said.

Posted by: aljvh at May 25, 2005 09:45 PM

The advantage of being notified a few seconds before the green is that traffic flows more efficiently. Most (good) drivers do look around before moving for errant pedestrians, other cars etc. What I see when driving around (US) is that people do this after the light going green and so less of the green light time is used by flowing traffic. When there is forewarning, people can look around and then start moving the moment the light is green.

Posted by: Roger Binns at May 25, 2005 10:28 PM

bluenettle: What Roger Binns said is right on. They do this in Germany too, (red and amber at the same time before going to green). It gives the driver's a heads up that the light is about to change for them so they can get into gear, get ready, do the check and then go. More traffic flows through the light this way. I wish the U.S. would adopt that.

Posted by: Faolan at May 26, 2005 01:44 AM

I am in the US, and don't really think this is all that confusing. Generally speaking, following a green arrow is the correct thing to do in *any* country. What I found initially confusing is something I found in Canada, where a flashing green light means "Advanced Green," or "you may both move forward and turn left and right." In the US we have additional arrows for turning left. Only by observing traffic did I discover the meaning of "advanced green."

Johnny2Shoes: Some of us Americans understand the value of a roundabout. I live in Indianapolis, IN, and we have roundabouts all over the place. In fact, there is an area on the north side of the city where road construction has been constant for about two years as they convert each and every intersection to a roundabout. With any luck perhaps we will be able to do away with stop signs at 4-way intersections in the whole city.

Lady Person: I am glad to know that you can drive manual transmission. Definitely puts you in the minority in this country, especially for women (no offense). I've long held the belief that all driving tests for obtaining licenses should be performed in a manual transmission vehicle, to help weed out incapable drivers.

Posted by: Michael at June 3, 2005 01:46 AM

Faolan: Johnny2Shoes's (forgive me if that's improper apostrophe use) point is that roundabouts/traffic circles are rare in the US. I also agree that we should use more roundabouts. I live in (well outside) a town where there are many crowded intersections with 4-way stops that have traffic backed up for almost a quarter-mile! Also, there are intersections between US and GA Hwys. and other roads where the side road has a stop sign but the highway doesn't, making it almost impossible to make a left turn without waiting for about 1 minute.

Posted by: Brian at June 20, 2005 11:52 PM

There are similar lights in Japan where you will sometimes get a crossroads with a red light, then green arrows pointing left, right and straight on.

Apparently that means, in a WFT kind of way, that you can go left, right or straight ahead, but oncoming traffic can't go anywhere.

Posted by: Ed at June 23, 2005 08:15 AM

Johnny2shoes reference was to the unusual, if not actually perverted, roundabout near the town of Swindon. I have not been there for some years but it is, if I recall correctly, one where there are two layers of traffic, one clockwise and the other anticlockwise.

Posted by: Ian M at September 23, 2005 10:29 AM

Comments on this entry are closed

Previous Posts: