Traffic Signals
Traffic Signals

Traffic Lights for Safe Driving: Pedestrian, Railroad & Drawbridge Signals

Updated Oct. 20, 2020

Like road signs, traffic signals are designed to communicate important information about current or upcoming road conditions to motorists and pedestrians. They are also used to control the flow of traffic, telling drivers when they must stop, prepare to stop or proceed.

You will encounter traffic lights:

  • At controlled intersections
  • At mid-block pedestrian crossings
  • Managing pedestrian traffic at busy crosswalks
  • At many railroad crossings
  • At drawbridges

Traffic lights differ from printed road signs in that they do not remain the same. Instead, they can be switched on or off to suit changing situations on the roadway. Many signaling devices also have multiple settings with different meanings. As a budding motorist and road user, you must know how to interpret traffic lights when you encounter them in different situations.

Traffic lights for drivers

The first article in this section covers the most commonly encountered traffic lights, which manage traffic flow through controlled intersections or mid-block pedestrian crosswalks. Unless protected turn lanes are present at an intersection, each line of traffic should only have basic red, yellow and green traffic lights to contend with. Arrow signal lights indicate a lane reserved exclusively for turning, such as a center left-turn lane. We start our exploration of traffic lights by learning the meaning behind each of these traffic control signal lights. Plus, we discuss what to do if you encounter a malfunctioning or inoperative signal at an intersection.

Mid-block pedestrian crosswalks are controlled by a unique type of signal known as hybrid beacons or “HAWK” signals. Unlike standard traffic lights at intersections, hybrid beacons remain inactive until a pedestrian activates a button on the sidewalk to indicate they wish to cross. “Traffic lights for Drivers” finishes up with a valuable step-by-step guide to interpreting hybrid beacons at mid-block pedestrian crossings.

Pedestrian signals

Signal lights that manage pedestrian traffic are often found at busy intersections. Electronic signs displaying “WALK”, “DON’T WALK” or symbols indicating these two actions are posted on crosswalks, to let pedestrians know when they have right-of-way and may safely cross the street. Of course, pedestrians must still cross with extreme caution, even when a “WALK” signal is active.

Find out how to abide by pedestrian signals safely here. You will also discover useful information about different types of pedestrian crossing and the signals which typically accompany them. This includes “on-demand” crosswalks and “pedestrian scrambles”. Understanding pedestrian signals is vital. Remember, the moment you step out of your vehicle – you are a pedestrian too.

Reversible lane control signals

These signals are also aimed at drivers, though you will only find them on multi-lane streets where the lawful use of one or more lanes alters throughout the day. Modifying the direction or use of a lane can make it easier to manage heavy, changeable traffic conditions. Above these reversible lanes, signal lights are displayed on large horizontal boards which can be seen by drivers traveling in both directions. All motorists must know what different reversible lane control signals mean, to determine whether they may drive in that lane.

Highway metering lights are another type of lane control signal which are only used on some limited-access highway entrance ramps. The color of the meter signal indicates whether drivers must wait at the end of the ramp or merge with highway traffic right away. Everything you need to know about metering lights and reversible lane control signals can be found in this section.

Railroad signals

Around 50 percent of railroad crossings on public roadways are managed by flashing red warning lights. Often, these signals are accompanied by an audio signal in the form of a warning bell and/or a safety gate that closes the crossing when trains are approaching.

The message behind a flashing red light at a crossing is simple and clear: do not enter the crossing, a train is coming.

Drivers MUST obey railroad signals and check for trains by looking down the track in both directions, even when an inactive signal indicates that it is safe to cross. The time difference between a signal light being activated and the train passing through the junction can vary wildly from one railroad crossing to the next. No matter how long you have been waiting at a crossing, do not seek to cross if:

  • A red warning light is active
  • A bell is sounding
  • A safety gate is closed or in the process of closing
  • A flagger indicates that a train is coming

What happens if you encounter a railroad crossing without signal lights? Don’t worry, that essential safety information is covered in this article too!

Drawbridge signals and signs

Drawbridges are mechanical bridges operated by a person known as a “drawbridge tender”. These bridges carry motorists and pedestrians but can be opened to allow marine traffic to pass underneath. Drivers must be able to interpret the signs and signals used around drawbridges - which can pose a serious hazard to road users. The final article in this section discusses safe drawbridge use for motorists and pedestrians. Here, you will learn what each drawbridge signal means and get acquainted with some vital safety tips.

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Traffic Lights for Drivers
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Traffic Signals for Drivers

At controlled intersections, traffic lights are installed to keep multiple lanes of traffic flowing and prevent crashes. These signal lights are programmed to avoid conflicts between road users while allowing traffic to move through the intersection as freely as possible. This article will teach you how to interpret traffic lights.

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Pedestrian Traffic Lights

Many intersections have signals to manage pedestrian traffic. Intersections are high-risk areas for all road users, though they pose a significant danger to people seeking to cross the street. Pedestrian signal lights at an intersection crosswalk MUST be obeyed, as motorists will not be prepared for people to step out into the road under a “DON’T WALK” sign.

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Reversible Lane Control Signals

Some multi-lane roadways feature reversible lanes, where the direction of traffic can be changed to accommodate heavy traffic moving in one direction at certain times and the opposite direction at others. Traffic lights visible in both directions are installed above reversible lanes, to let drivers know whether they may use it.

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Warning Road Signs

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