Why do many drivers take their time moving off on a green light?
February 2, 2017 4:19 PM   Subscribe

When the lights turn green at a stoplight, I usually pull away immediately. Quite often I’m the first person to pull away by some distance. Do most drivers take a relaxed approach because they’re just relaxed, or is there a safety consideration I’m not paying attention to?

I'd say what I think I'm perceiving is a 1-2 second difference. I’m not speeding away, I’m driving at the same pace as everyone else once they get going. I'm a relatively new driver.
posted by pickingupsticks to Travel & Transportation (64 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Difference in reaction time, or caution against people blasting through red lights.
posted by Ferreous at 4:24 PM on February 2, 2017 [29 favorites]

Are you looking at the cross traffic to make sure nobody's running through a "yellow" light (how often have you seen someone start through the light just after it's turned red? I'd say not rare enough). How quickly are you accelerating? I'd say I take my foot off the break fairly quickly, but I accelerate at a measured pace, for safety, comfort, and nice-to-my-car reasons - even if we eventually hit the same speed it might take some people longer to get there than you. But also, yeah, reaction time, and not being in a 1-2 second rush.
posted by brainmouse at 4:25 PM on February 2, 2017 [7 favorites]

I've been a driver for 17 years, though I don't own a car right now. The safety consideration with gunning at a green light is the risk that someone will run the red light and crash into you. Yes, technically they would be at fault, but that's cold comfort when you're in the hospital and your car is totaled.
posted by basalganglia at 4:26 PM on February 2, 2017 [50 favorites]

Someone could blow through the red light and hit you, this is why you go slow on a green. It gives you time to look both ways and verify cars from the other direction have stopped.

I was taught to look both ways in driver's ed class before proceeding through an intersection. Yes, what you are doing is unsafe, always verify other cars have stopped, don't just rely on the green light.
posted by jbenben at 4:27 PM on February 2, 2017 [11 favorites]

In Boston you'd probably have been T-boned a dozen times by now. Drivers here consider red lights (and many other traffic directions) as purely advisory.
posted by mr vino at 4:28 PM on February 2, 2017 [28 favorites]

Yeah, if I'm first in line, I definitely proceed through a newly-green light with extreme caution, unless it's clear that traffic coming from both the left and right are at a complete stop. I learned to drive in Fairfield County, CT, now a NYC daily driver. Been driving for 22 years. I'm happy to let someone else go first.
posted by AlisonM at 4:31 PM on February 2, 2017 [4 favorites]

You need to take the time to look both ways and verify that the cross directional traffic, including anyone trying to make a left turn in front of you, has stopped. This is basic safety. Remember that people trying to speed through a yellow are going as fast as they can.

(Being a new driver is probably why you haven't yet really grokked this... once you've been on the road a while you will see folks speeding through a was-yellow-now-red light that will curl your hair.)
posted by fingersandtoes at 4:33 PM on February 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'm a big fan of letting the other guy go first. You never know who's texting and blasts through the 'new' red light. A T-bone is a horrible accident, you don't want to be involved in one.
posted by defcom1 at 4:37 PM on February 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

I always drive as though everyone else on the road is in a car filled with bees.
Therefore, I always assume that someone is going to run through a red light, until I take a moment to check.
(It only takes getting broadsided once...)
posted by bookmammal at 4:37 PM on February 2, 2017 [12 favorites]

They're all on their phones.

(But, also, zipping out into the intersection is a good way to get T-boned.)
posted by Mid at 4:38 PM on February 2, 2017 [23 favorites]

Either paranoia or inattention, sometimes both. Also, some people apparently don't know what a protected turn or green arrow is.
posted by rhizome at 4:43 PM on February 2, 2017 [2 favorites]

Clearly you're not driving in Boston; most of the time, even if you have the green light, other cars are still clearing the intersection from the cross-direction! It's not unusual for me to count half a dozen cars blatantly running the red light at any given light cycle change, even if they hadn't cleared the crosswalk on their side before the red.
posted by Pandora Kouti at 4:43 PM on February 2, 2017 [3 favorites]

In Boston you'd probably have been T-boned a dozen times by now. Drivers here consider red lights (and many other traffic directions) as purely advisory.

Yes, you're probably not from Boston. Most people around here speed away immediately. According to "Wild in the Streets: The Boston Driver's Handbook," first edition, p. 118, under the heading "Deceptive Use of the Horn," "...the most basic use of a horn is to persuade drivers in front of you at an intersection to get moving after a light turns green. One second is the maximum amount of reaction time you should tolerate before blasting away."
posted by Melismata at 4:44 PM on February 2, 2017 [7 favorites]

Honestly, I take my time pulling away from a green light and it's not for safety reasons. I just don't understand the desire/need to "save" an extra 1-2 seconds by gunning it as soon as I can. It never even occurred to me to look in my rear view mirror to see how long it takes people to catch up with me.

(The safety reasons are really good - just not part of my conscious calculus, at least before now.)
posted by schroedingersgirl at 4:47 PM on February 2, 2017 [5 favorites]

I don't live in Boston, and people regularly run red lights here like they own the place. And not just stale yellows -- full-blown reds when the other direction has already turned green. I would never dart out into an intersection without being reasonably sure that someone isn't trying to kill me in this way.
posted by delight at 4:49 PM on February 2, 2017

Not sure if you're asking about a pause before any forward movement, or just slow acceleration. If the latter, pulling out slowly increases fuel efficiency. There's no reason to waste gas by flooring the pedal right only to stop behind the same people at the next red light 1/2 mile down the road.
posted by hhc5 at 4:49 PM on February 2, 2017 [2 favorites]

On the other hand (and maybe this is "wrong") but I pull away very quickly and if you don't move quickly you'll get a honk for moving slowly. I learned to drive in NJ but take a slower approach now that I live down south.
posted by raccoon409 at 4:51 PM on February 2, 2017

If you live in cold weather it's possible someone might slide through the intersection as well, not meaning to, as intersections become slippery much faster than the rest of the road.
posted by Nyx at 4:52 PM on February 2, 2017 [5 favorites]

Yeah, the other reason I take my time is to be kind to my car. I'm not in an action movie, sadly, so it doesn't matter if it takes me longer to get up to speed. I don't put "0 to 60 in n seconds" to use very often.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 4:52 PM on February 2, 2017 [2 favorites]

Another thing is that if I'm driving a manual transmission vehicle, it probably takes me an extra second to get in gear. They're not as common but it might be another factor.
posted by tchemgrrl at 4:56 PM on February 2, 2017 [8 favorites]

As someone who drives a fair number of rental cars, I think some cars are better off the line than others. My own car is on the lighter side, and in bigger non-hybrid cars I often have a moment of "oh shit, why am I not moving?" I'm not punching it or anything (Priuses don't punch, so much), it's just a slower response.

(Though I am also in a place where dawdling will get you honked at. Angelenos want to squeeze every bit of juice out of that light.)
posted by Lyn Never at 4:56 PM on February 2, 2017 [2 favorites]

The above are all very legitimate reasons not to go through the intersection right away, but uh, anecdotally around Chicago, it seems like the #1 reason people don't go quickly at a green light is because they're still looking down at their phone...
posted by goodbyewaffles at 4:57 PM on February 2, 2017 [5 favorites]

For me, it depends on the situation. But in general I agree with the above - it's only two weeks ago a young guy in a passenger seat was killed because a woman was running a red light, just 200 yards from where I live.
posted by mumimor at 4:58 PM on February 2, 2017

If you're just watching for your green light to gun it like it's a reaction-time test and not glancing to make sure that the intersection is truly clear, it's not only the cross-traffic yellow/red runners that you may be missing. There may be an emergency vehicle coming that needs to get through the intersection against the traffic light.
posted by CKmtl at 4:59 PM on February 2, 2017 [5 favorites]

What everybody said above. Also, I do not like the feeling of the extra G's (or fractions of Gs I guess) that accelerating quickly causes.
posted by bluesky78987 at 5:05 PM on February 2, 2017

I take off slow at green lights because I'm checking for intersecting traffic that doesn't play by the rules.

The car in front of me, though, that's slow off the green? It's being driven by a useless idiot who shouldn't be on the road and has proven themselves to be such a waste of cellular matter that they don't deserve to have anywhere that they could consider a "destination", unless it's a euthanasia clinic and their entire family is with them.

But for me it's definitely the traffic-checking thing.
posted by turbid dahlia at 5:06 PM on February 2, 2017 [51 favorites]

Yeah, I delay to wait for people running reds and also pedestrians and bikes flying out.
posted by Toddles at 5:09 PM on February 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

I treat a light that turns from red to green like I do a stop sign. I look both ways, then proceed. I have seen too many Yahoos blast through a yellow or red light to be complacent. I do the same when I'm a pedestrian. I work on a college campus, and over the years I've seen 3 kids get hit when they walk on the walk sign and get smacked by an asshole running the light.
posted by Floydd at 5:11 PM on February 2, 2017 [3 favorites]

Here in Billings, Montana, the red lights have a several second overlap to help avoid collisions. But everyone knows that, so running red lights is super common. I never take off on a green light unless I'm sure the cross traffic is stopping.
posted by The Deej at 5:12 PM on February 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

Safety. Way too many drivers around here think that green means "go", yellow means "go like hell", and red means "if you get through early enough it doesn't count".
posted by Lexica at 5:16 PM on February 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

One close call to a t-bone and you'll never gun it at green light again. That said i give a slow count of three to the dumbnut texting on their phone in front of me before honking.
posted by cgg at 5:22 PM on February 2, 2017

Why do I take my time when my light turns green?
1) because over the years, many MANY drivers have blown through as their lights were changing from yellow to red, and I couldn't begin to tell you how many times a slower start has, literally, saved my life; and
2) because just four months ago, even though I was the THIRD vehicle to go through after my light turned red, I was T-boned and my car was totaled by a damn fool who ran a red light.

Slow down, you won't regret it --- saving a couple seconds with a jackrabbit start may feel cool now, but it is NOT worth doing.
posted by easily confused at 5:22 PM on February 2, 2017 [3 favorites]

Dadgummit, that should be "third after my light turned GREEN, I was T-boned"
posted by easily confused at 5:29 PM on February 2, 2017 [2 favorites]

In NYC many lights are timed so that if traffic is moving you gain nothing at all by bolting at the light change, even if you weren't *guaranteed* to have last-minute pedestrians and bikes and left-turning vehicles and light-runners in your path. The timing is such that in order to get a consistent string of green lights you must maintain a constant speed at the 25mph limit. I laugh at aggressive and unfamiliar drivers who bolt out on green and wind up stopped at the next light as you, smoothly easing up to 25, flow past them (along with anyone behind you moving at speed), having never braked at all and having saved a fair bit of gas and wear and tear from maintaining steady momentum. It's one of the few lol-worthy aspects of NYC driving.

The trick of course is to ease steadily out as soon as the light changes, giving yourself plenty of time and room to stop if necessary while building momentum for when you commit and signaling to drivers behind you (and pedestrians here) that yes this moving thing is happening.
posted by spitbull at 5:54 PM on February 2, 2017 [12 favorites]

Not just getting t-boned but I'm just flabbergasted at the number of pedestrians that seem to carefully wait for the light to turn against them before crossing.
posted by sammyo at 5:56 PM on February 2, 2017 [2 favorites]

OK, I don't "zip" across when the light changes, but neither do I hesitate. I am irritated by people who aren't paying attention at lights. I am watching the other lanes as I wait at the light and therefore am aware of oncoming light-runners. Yes, I look both ways. No, I've never come close to being t-boned, an I've been driving for over 40 years. (It could also be that people in my south-of-Seattle community are a little more well-behaved than people in, say, Boston. Though we seem to have forgotten what our turn signals are for.)
posted by lhauser at 6:38 PM on February 2, 2017 [2 favorites]

Most intersections around where I live you can see the other light, so when the other light turns yellow I perk up and pay attention to the behavior of the other drivers, whether they are slowing down to stop or gunning it to make it through. 9 times out of 10 it's clear to go immediately when the light turns green and people are still slow to go. I think it has more to do with people taking red lights as an opportunity to check their phone, check the glove compartment, or check themselves out in the mirror, rather than safety.
posted by blackzinfandel at 6:43 PM on February 2, 2017 [2 favorites]

Safety, gas efficiency, and I'm not in a rush to get places.
posted by Marinara at 6:43 PM on February 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

I learned to drive in Boston, but now I live in California. If I'm first at an intersection, I generally give it a beat when the light turns green before taking off, because I don't want someone running the red to kill me. I've witnessed plenty of assholes on the streets in my neighborhood blow red lights that have been red for a good two-three-four seconds.
posted by rtha at 6:49 PM on February 2, 2017 [2 favorites]

Everyone around here pauses and waits before they go on a green light, because sometimes the cross traffic just can't stop, because of snow and ice. (And I've been that cross traffic, too.) Are you somewhere that doesn't have winter?
posted by leahwrenn at 6:53 PM on February 2, 2017

In fairness "winter" means a lot of different things in a lot of different places, even within your own country.
posted by turbid dahlia at 6:57 PM on February 2, 2017

I live in a Midwestern university town and deal with this phenomenon particularly when driving on campus. It seems to happen for one of three different reasons:

--yielding to pedestrian traffic before making a right turn

--safety check or letting a driver on the opposite side finish making a left-hand turn


The last of these means the driver is still sitting at the light several seconds after it turns green. At certain intersections during certain times, one really must pull away from the green light almost immediately or risk backing up traffic for blocks, so in these cases I tend to honk at drivers who hesitate for more than a couple seconds without worrying about being rude because I KNOW they're engaged in #3 (and often can even see them at it).
posted by tully_monster at 7:01 PM on February 2, 2017

Learned to drive in Boston. Lived in Seattle several years. Definitely different driving cultures!

There is a middle ground. And yeah it begins by remaining fully alert when stopped at a light, tracking the other lights and traffic approaching the intersection, and using space efficiently and safely. But leaping out at the moment a light turns green is a bad default habit.
posted by spitbull at 7:43 PM on February 2, 2017

Delaying at green lights is really annoying, especially in cases like left turn lights where if you delay, cars behind you will have to wait an entire extra light cycle unnecessarily. And I suspect I'm not the only MeFite who uses Car2Go (pay per minute rental cars) and really dislike being delayed 2 minutes for no reason, while paying by the minute.

Safety: if you're first in line at an intersection, you can usually tell when you're about to get the green light. Do your safety check then, in advance, so when it turns green you can go right away.
posted by reeddavid at 7:46 PM on February 2, 2017 [4 favorites]

Also texting or doing other significantly distracting things at a light is stupid. You're still on the road and there are 3000 pound devices controlled by other idiots approaching you from one or more directions, at high speeds, including from behind in many cases. You're a sitting duck. You have to remain alert and ready to anticipate unexpected or emergent factors.
posted by spitbull at 7:48 PM on February 2, 2017

I'm just not in that much of a hurry. It drives my husband nuts.
Or I'm changing the radio station.
posted by SLC Mom at 8:07 PM on February 2, 2017 [3 favorites]

Some intersection designs intentionally turn the pedestrian signal to "walk" a moment before the light turns green for vehicles. This gives people walking an opportunity to get out ahead of turning traffic where they're visible, rather than having to choose between getting cut off and stepping off the sidewalk (which often seems to be a psychological blind spot for people driving) at the same moment cars begin their turn. It also allows a little more time to walk across wide streets. I think it's a relatively new concept in traffic engineering, but you can apply it yourself anywhere by taking an extra moment as the light changes to look around and make sure you're yielding to pedestrians. I don't know if many people are thinking this way yet, but it's one more reason...

And, as spitbull says, you're in a crowd people operating 3000lb vehicles in a public space. Best to be cautious with the heavy machinery!
posted by sibilatorix at 8:17 PM on February 2, 2017 [2 favorites]

I don't know about the US, but in the UK the meaning of a green light is "go if the way is clear", i.e. you still have responsibility to ensure that it's safe to go, even if you get a green. At many intersections this might need a bit of a delay (although not 2 seconds certainly). What's more important is to take off reasonably briskly, to keep the traffic behind flowing at a reasonable rate.
posted by tillsbury at 8:48 PM on February 2, 2017 [2 favorites]

I usually take a second or two to make sure it's safe to go as well. I've been especially careful since I almost got T-boned by a guy doing probably 70 in a 30 zone, blowing through the red light at night without his lights on and missing me by inches. He would have killed me instantly, I'm pretty sure.

That said, it really annoys me when people don't pay attention and go as soon as it's safe, particularly people on their phones. Pay attention to the cross light and be prepared to go when it turns. There's a nice medium there between gunning it as soon as it turns green and moseying so that others have to wait. I try to hit that sweet spot.
posted by gemmy at 8:54 PM on February 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

Just one more thing to add since it will probably become common in the future: my car has a fuel-saving feature where it turns itself off when it's stopped. It takes a second to turn itself back on when I take my foot off the brake.
posted by karbonokapi at 8:57 PM on February 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

Albuquerque is another city where the light turning red is treated as a suggestion. When I moved here, all the locals instructed me to count to 3 and check for people running the light before entering an intersection.
posted by antimony at 9:48 PM on February 2, 2017

This is gonna sound really old lady, but after having almost been t-boned by a pickup going 70 when I was third in line to go through a green, I recommend always being conscious of checking intersections before you go through them. Not putting the brakes on, obvs, but putting yourself in a "cautious" headspace. It's really easy to just focus on the car in front of you.
posted by Miss T.Horn at 10:31 PM on February 2, 2017 [2 favorites]

Here in the Netherlands, we're not as worried about getting T-boned. Maybe Dutch drivers have more respect for red lights? But I do see people being slow about pulling up then the light turns green. They may not be in a hurry, and consider it a great moment to change the station on the radio, but they're wasting other people's time.
Like you, I pay attention to the lights (as well as, obviously, to the other traffic) and pull away quite quickly, compared to what I see others doing.
Been driving for 20 years and never been in any accidents caused by this.

Many, many people are just not paying much attention and also possibly doing other stuff (radio and phone related things, most likely).
posted by Too-Ticky at 2:45 AM on February 3, 2017 [1 favorite]

I wouldn't want to cost someone in a Car2Go an extra 50 cents in waiting time just because I didn't want to kill a pedestrian or get t-boned lol. You rented a car, you pay the cost for driving with other people around.

Obviously no one should sit waiting after a signal change. You should ease slowly into the intersection if it's busy or you don't have good visibility or pedestrians are still crossing, and then proceed safely. This is in a city, at least. Out in the boondocks, where you can see for miles and there are few pedestrians, maybe it's different. In NYC you do not know often if someone approaching a new red at speed is actually planning to stop.

If someone honks at me for proceeding steadily but cautiously, guess who is waiting a few seconds longer out of spite? I'm not hitting a pedestrian because you're in a hurry. And the next light will be red when we get to it anyway.

Finally, if a lead car proceeding cautiously at a green causes traffic to back up "for blocks," as someone said above, you've got a problem with light timing, not the driver in question.

Pay full attention, never sit waiting at a green light, but don't jackrabbit the second the light goes green, at least in my city we lose an average of one pedestrian every couple of days to freaking idiot drivers who think they own the road.
posted by spitbull at 6:01 AM on February 3, 2017 [3 favorites]

If the weather is bad, they may be pausing to make sure the wheels are actually gripping the road properly as they pull away. This is especially true with small cars that have small wheels. Or they may be driving a manual transmission and taking some time to shift, especially on a hill. I used to get honked at while driving a sports car out in the country for some combination of those reasons. (At times I would actually have my parking brake on to prevent sliding back.)
posted by BibiRose at 6:11 AM on February 3, 2017 [1 favorite]

I had an accident where I started moving immediately, made it like 5 feet, and then slammed on the brakes when someone blew through the red -- and then I got rear ended by the car behind me. Now I concentrate on going slowly and predictably.
posted by miyabo at 7:15 AM on February 3, 2017 [1 favorite]

As gently as I can put this, drivers like you are the reason I take a few extra seconds. People who are more focused on traffic signals than traffic are people who cause accidents.
posted by disconnect at 10:43 AM on February 3, 2017 [3 favorites]

I have a vivid memory of one instance where I avoided an accident where some drunk idiots ran a red light in front of me and I saw them not bothering to slow down even though I had the green for a second or so already. So yes, safety is absolutely a concern. And it's not just traffic you should be watching for. Pedestrians and bikes can often behave unpredictably and make it unsafe to proceed into an intersection even when you have a green light. Granted, some of the delay can be mitigated by paying close attention to traffic before the light turns, but especially if your visibility down the crossroad is limited, it pays to be slow and steady.
posted by Aleyn at 11:30 AM on February 3, 2017

As gently as I can put this, drivers like you are the reason I take a few extra seconds. People who are more focused on traffic signals than traffic are people who cause accidents.

I was taught to pay attention to both signals and other traffic participants. And at this point I have driven hundreds of thousands of miles on three continents and in over a dozen countries on both sides of the road in both manual and automatic cars and what my old instructor taught me 20 years ago has served me well but it didn't entail dawdling. This is one of those points where general views, practice and experiences differ widely depending on country and location and generalisations are unhelpful.
posted by koahiatamadl at 1:07 PM on February 3, 2017 [1 favorite]

Finally, if a lead car proceeding cautiously at a green causes traffic to back up "for blocks," as someone said above, you've got a problem with light timing, not the driver in question.

Nope. It's self-absorbed, laws-apply-to-everyone-but-me traffic signal texters, the least cautious, most self-deluded drivers on the planet. Perhaps you missed the part where I said "college campus." I can actually see the light from their smartphones when they're right in front of me.
posted by tully_monster at 2:05 PM on February 3, 2017

Thank you, all these answers are very helpful. I hope I'm now significantly less likely to kill someone/get t-boned.
posted by pickingupsticks at 9:56 PM on February 3, 2017 [2 favorites]

Skipped a lot, but I always allow a small pause when I'm in front because I know that (a) someone might run or push the red and (b) if I'm 2 or 3 cars back, the car in front of me might stop because of (a).
posted by Miko at 10:07 PM on February 3, 2017

To contradict most of the above answers, it is usually not a conscious choice, and that is demonstrable by observing brake lights:

Most people are not paying attention to anything besides their own light. Until it turns green, their foot is on the brake. Only after the light turns green, they move their foot from the brake to the gas. Between that motion and the time it takes for a car to start moving after the gas pedal is depressed, the delay is a second or two. Sometimes people do wait even longer, but that is relatively rare in my experience.

A few people pay attention to other things than their own light - the existence of cross traffic, and more importantly, the color of the light for cross traffic. Those people anticipate the timing of their own light turning green, and take their foot off the brake earlier, before the green. They are ready to go when their light turns green.

Watching brake lights carefully at a red light will show you this difference clearly.

I've been a driver in many places, including Boston. I am typically in the latter group, ready to go, but I know that most people are not. That's fine, it's just human inattention. It usually works itself out.

The thing that really drives me nuts is when I'm several cars back from the light, the first driver is a pauser, and the next drivers don't notice that. So when the light turns green, there is a pause, and then everyone a few cars back slams on their brakes, at a green light. I've seen rear-enders from that mismatch of attention. But that situation is pretty rare, since most people are not actually pausing by choice.
posted by Dashy at 8:35 AM on February 4, 2017

I am typically in the latter group, ready to go

I also watch the other light, and so on, but I still pause because I know how common it is for people to push the red light. It isn't just a delay in making a physical motion, or some idea of being ready. It's safety.
posted by Miko at 1:26 PM on February 5, 2017

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