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.

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Page 1 of 32 comments on “Traffic Signal Power Outage! What Do You Do?”

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  1. Traveling through green light and the power goes off and unable to stop in time, and a vehicle on the left had a stop light and decided to proceed as you can’t slow down enough for stop and cause you to hit it ,what options could you have done

    • Hi Tony – thanks for sharing your hypothetical situation with us. We encourage you to connect with ICBC directly about your question, as this falls under their area. Safe travels.

      • This is not a hypothetical question! It actually happened and how do I contact you for this information in which I can explain more about it and get any idea of not to ever happen again! It involves a school bus which I want to see the video cameras supposedly installed on them but have not seen them as of now

  2. “…treating the intersection like a two-way stop.”

    This one still causes much confusion out there. (And online.)

    When two vehicles facing each other arrive at a two-way stop at different times, *but* both have to wait for through traffic to clear before safely proceeding, who then goes first? Still the vehicle that came to a complete stop first?

    • Hi Kyle – thanks for connecting with us here. We jumped over the the ICBC driver manual for an answer on this question and encourage you to have a look as well.

      two-way stops — if two streets intersect and only one of the streets has stop signs, then the other street is a through street.
      Traffic on the through street has the right-of-way. If you are stopped at one of these types of intersections, wait until there is a safe gap before going through or turning. If two vehicles are stopped at a two-way stop and one of the drivers wants to turn left, this driver should yield the right-of way to the other vehicle. The only exception is if the left-turning vehicle is already in the intersection and has started to make the turn. In this case, the other vehicle must yield. If there is any doubt about who has the right-of-way, or if there is any chance of a crash, it’s always better to yield the right-of-way to the other person.

      Under the guidelines for a four way stop – ICBC notes the first vehicle to arrive at the intersection and come to a complete stop should go first.

      As there is no real direction on the process for a two way stop – it is likely best for the person who arrived first to go ahead.

      Hope that this is helpful.

  3. At an intersection where there are 5 lanes in all directions what is the proper way to proceed? Can two vehicles from one direction proceed at the same time if both vehicles are heading in different directions?

  4. How about pedestrian controlled crossings?
    The power is out and what?
    Call my mummy to ask her what to do?
    Pee myself just a little?
    Stop and help old ladies to cross.. if no old ladies, just wait?
    Keep going?

  5. Hi there,

    We had a situation in Dawson where all four traffic lights were flashing yellow, not Red. Now how would you approach that.

    I told someone to proceed with caution and yield to pedestrians on the main road and the arterial road would treat that as a full stop until safe to proceed.
    Would this be correct?

    • Hello Randi – thanks for your question. A flashing yellow light requires that all drivers approach and pass the light with caution, being ready to stop if necessary.

  6. Hi. I am wondering if the procedure above is not precisely clear. In a 4 way stop procedure at a minor intersection, where traffic is very light, the above method seems appropriate. However, at a major intersection where traffic is very heavy it seems more appropriate to ignore the “got there first, go first” rule in favor of always yielding to the right hand side. I think this would be more efficient and reduce confusion over who has the right of way at any given time. Would it make more sense to stress “yield to the right” and “left turn yield to oncomming traffic” rules and drop the “first stop, first go” rule?

    • Hi Adrian,

      Thanks for your suggestion about different ways that traffic could travel through an intersection when the signal is not working.

      The four-way stop procedure is simple to remember and follow, and gives everyone a chance to proceed when it’s their turn.

      If I am understanding your suggestion about everyone yielding to the person on the right, an intersection with heavy traffic could become locked off by vehicles who are all yielding to the person on the right. (There could be confusion if everyone would be yielding, and no one proceeding, because everyone could always have someone on their right).

  7. Could you please help me out… in our town (Quesnel). We have a few traffic lights that detect when a vechile is waiting, before the light will change….after a snowfall it is common for this control to not pick up someone is waiting for a light change. Since it is not legal to run a red light, and also not legal to back up into oncomeing traffic, and I can’t imagine leaving your vechile to push a walk light is the answer… what is the legal next move..I would appreciate a response as I don’t want a fine and all I can think of to do next time is call 911 and ask for R.C.M.P. To supply traffic control.

    • Hi Greg,

      Have you connected with the City of Quesnel to let them know of your concern? They might be able to adjust the sensitivity of the sensor during specific seasons? Or at the very least be made aware that this is an issue.

  8. 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.

  9. 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…

        • 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.