Traffic Signal Power Outage! What Do You Do?

Flashing Red Lights at Intersection

Pop quiz! (Because everyone loves spontaneous tests of driving knowledge, right?)

It’s a stormy day and you approach a flashing red light while driving. As you get closer, it becomes clear it’s a traffic light controlled four-way intersection with a power outage or other mechanical failure. No yellow or green — just red lights flashing in all directions. You…

  1. A) Thank the electricity gods because you’re running late for a very important date, then step on the gas.
  2. B) Approach the intersection slowly and stop only if you see another vehicle approach.
  3. C) Curse the electricity gods, come to a complete stop, and wait for the power to come back on, giving you the green light to proceed.
  4. D) None of the above.

The answer is… D.

Options A) through C) aren’t only ridiculous, they’re dangerous and against the law (see MVA Section 131 Flashing Lights). And yet, we’ve seen confused drivers approach intersections controlled by traffic signals in similar ways during power outages. Confusion at intersections can cause chaos, which can lead to serious “T-bone” collisions.

What To Do When Traffic Signals Aren’t Working 

Flashing red in all four directions: treat the intersection like a four-way stop.

  • The first vehicle to come to a complete stop at the intersection goes first;
  • If two vehicles arrive and stop at the same time, the one on the right goes first;
  • If two vehicles stop at the intersection at about the same time and are facing each other, the one making a left turn yields to the one going straight through. Otherwise, both vehicles proceed straight through at the same time.
  • In all cases, yield to pedestrians.
  • Before entering the intersection, be sure other approaching vehicles are following the rules and coming to a complete stop.

Some signals on highways are programmed to flash yellow on the highway, due to higher traffic, and red on the side street when there is a malfunction. In this case, the rules change a bit:

  • Highway travellers: slow down and approach the intersection controlled by a flashing yellow light with caution, being aware of traffic on the side streets before continuing through intersection. Be sure to yield to pedestrians if present at a crosswalk.
  • Side street travellers: stop at the flashing red light and proceed only when safe to do so, treating the intersection like a two-way stop.

Inoperative traffic signals caused by a power outage usually show themselves as flashing red (and sometimes yellow) lights from backup power, which lasts a maximum eight hours. Signals will go completely dark if hydro isn’t restored during that time. So, keep that in mind if you ever approach a traffic signal controlled intersection with no lights working at all, and treat it like a four-way stop.

For more on understanding intersections, using lanes correctly, and even parking tips and rules, we suggest reading the Rules of the Road chapter in ICBC’s handy driver guide. Or, feel free to ask a question in the comments section below.

And remember, it’s never up to the electricity gods – only you have the power to get through intersections safely when the power goes out.

Page 1 of 24 comments on “Traffic Signal Power Outage! What Do You Do?”

Leave a Comment

  1. At a recent motorcycle group meeting, one individual stated that he had heard that when the traffic lights go out at an intersection, and one of the roads is a provincial highway (i.e. Hwy 15 and 32nd Avenue, Surrey), that the traffic on the provincial highway has right-of-way and is not required to stop. Is this correct?

    • Hi Geof,

      Thanks for your question. Right of way has nothing to do with being a provincial highway. Often highway intersections without protected left turn phasing will have flashing yellow lights on the highway and flashing red lights on a side street. Legally, this acts as a two way stop and the highway can proceed while the side street waits for a safe opportunity to enter the intersection, but, if all “the traffic lights go out” and all signal heads are blank, the intersection operates as a four way stop. Hope that this helps.

    • Hi Juanita,

      This sounds like unsafe driving behaviour, unfortunately we are not responsible for enforcing laws on BC highways, that responsibility falls to the BC RCMP. Hope that this helps.

  2. I notice there is a bicycle in this graphic, but the article doesn’t mention anything about bicycles. It does mention how to treat pedestrians, though. When are we finally going to start distinguishing bicycles from motor vehicles? It’s only been about 100 years…

  3. When are signals required by law?
    Taking fork in the road, merging, entering and exiting roadway,passing, all Lane changes, and all turns.

        • Hi Kelly,

          Brake lights act as a signal to other motorists that a driver is slowing. Signals to the right or to the left would further indicate which direction they were planning on travelling. Cyclists are required to signal their intent to stop as outlined in the image on the blog you included.