When other lights are red, what’s a flashing yellow arrow mean?

In Marysville’s busy and growing 116th Street NE area, a left-turn signal caused some confusion.

The traffic signal from northbound 38th Drive NE onto 116th Street NE has a left-turn arrow that flashes yellow, while the other lights stay red. It means drivers can take the left turn, but must yield to oncoming traffic. (City of Marysville)

The traffic signal from northbound 38th Drive NE onto 116th Street NE has a left-turn arrow that flashes yellow, while the other lights stay red. It means drivers can take the left turn, but must yield to oncoming traffic. (City of Marysville)

North Marysville’s growth in recent years sparked a deluge of development.

With the area’s boom came new traffic demands that required new signals. We know that green is go, red is stop, and yellow means you should probably not gas it through an intersection. But what about a flashing yellow arrow?

One such light, at the intersection of 38th Drive Northeast and 116th Street Northeast, got the attention of reader Jake Ritland. He was unsure of what was allowed for traffic heading north from 38th Drive Northeast.

“I have found at times that the thru lanes will have a red light, but the left turn lane signal will have a flashing yellow arrow,” the Tulalip resident said. “Am I allowed to make the left on the yellow if traffic allows, or do I need to wait for the green arrow?”

It seemed like he could, but I’m neither a traffic engineer nor a lawman and wouldn’t want to serve up a hot take only for it to burn someone later.

The short, official answer is a yellow arrow means drivers can take that turn, so long as it’s safe. Treat it like a yield.

“The flashing yellow arrow (FYA) signal display indicates that the left turn phase is permitted after yielding to opposing traffic,” said Marysville spokesperson Connie Mennie. “So in answer to Mr. Ritland’s question, yes. If he has a flashing yellow arrow signal, he can turn after yielding to oncoming traffic.”

Confusion over new signal combinations has hit Marysville before. When new crosswalk lights were installed on Fourth Street near Asbery Athletic Field in 2017, this column helped answer what the colors meant.

This time, a city engineer gave a more technical response about what each light means at 38th and 116th.

“If the signal head shown below is flashing yellow arrow, the motorist is permitted to turn left after yielding to oncoming traffic and pedestrians,” Marysville city engineer Jeff Laycock said. “If it is a green left arrow, then the motorist has the right of way. If it is red … then the motorist must stop and wait. If it is solid yellow, then the motorist shall prepare to stop.”

Marysville’s population has grown sharply over the past decade to about 68,000 people. Back in 2015 the city was one of the fastest growing populations in the United States, and remains so in Snohomish County and the state.

Hotels, restaurants and retail in the past few years were built along 116th Street Northeast. The northbound I-5 offramp to 116th Street Northeast had a daily average of 13,000 vehicles in 2018, according to Washington State Department of Transportation data.

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