The UK traffic light sequence, fully explained

Everything you need to know about UK RAG traffic lights

The UK traffic light sequence — what does it mean exactly? Here, traffic light signals go beyond the well-established red, green and amber. You’re likely to encounter less familiar signals too, including flashing amber lights, green filter arrows, and even traffic lights that display red and amber at the same time. 

So what do you need to do when encountering these signals? And how do drivers handle traffic lights at different types of junctions and crossings? In this article, we’ll explain everything you need to know, including exactly what happens if you do happen to run an amber or red light. 

What is the traffic light sequence in England? 

The traffic light sequence in England is the same as the rest of the UK: red, red and amber, green, and then amber. But there are other possibilities too, so it’s important that you know what to do if you encounter one of the lights below. 

A red traffic light 

Apart from green, this is probably the best understood of all the traffic light signals. Unsurprisingly, a red light means you need to stop. It applies to all road users, including cyclists and pedestrians. 

On approaching a set of traffic lights, always make sure you’ve given yourself time to stop your vehicle, as you’ll need to come to a halt before you reach the line. Unless you think you’ll only be waiting a short time, put your car in neutral and apply the handbrake. 

A red and amber light 

When you see a red and amber traffic light signal, you’re being told to “prepare to go” as the lights will shortly change from red to green. In this situation, you can release your handbrake and put your car into gear — but don’t cross the line yet. 

A green light

A green light means you can go, but only If it’s safe to do so. For example, if you’re turning right at a junction, you may have to wait until any oncoming traffic has passed, as the light will be green for them too and they have right of way.

A steady amber light

If you see a steady amber light you should stop, as long as it’s safe to do so. But if you’ve already crossed the junction’s white line, or you’re close enough to the line that stopping would be unsafe and cause an accident, then you can go through the light.

Beyond the main sequence of traffic lights, there are other signals that you might encounter:

A flashing amber light

A flashing amber light at a pedestrian crossing means you can go if it’s safe and the crossing ahead is clear. But remember — pedestrians have priority. 

A green filter arrow

A green arrow filter arrow can be displayed instead of or in addition to the more usual steady green light signal. The filter arrow takes priority over any other lights showing. It means that you have right of way and should proceed so that you don’t affect other traffic.

By the way, If you do stop whilst proceeding in the direction dictated by a green filter arrow during your driving test (in other words, if “you do not make progress”), then unfortunately you’ll fail your test.

Quite a lot of knowing what to do at a set of traffic lights is understanding what you might need to do next. That’s why it’s really important to know the traffic light sequence off by heart. It helps to ensure that nothing comes as a nasty surprise.

How do you remember the sequence of traffic lights?

Thankfully, the UK traffic light sequence is pretty easy to remember.

If you need help remembering, you could try visualising the change of colours in your mind, or saying or singing the sequence out loud. This is especially easy if you’re driving with no one else in the car — cars tend to be pretty soundproof!

Whichever way you choose, accurately remembering the sequence of traffic lights is crucial for safe driving on the road.

For example, if you’re approaching a set of traffic lights that have been on green for some time, then knowing the sequence of the traffic light sequence will help you anticipate that the lights will turn amber soon. You then can start to slow down and use the MSM (mirror, signal, manoeuvre) routine to check for any hazards and communicate to other drivers that you’re about to stop. 

After all, the clearer you are to other road users about your intentions, the less likely you are to have an accident.

How does a four-way traffic light work?

Traffic lights tend to work in pairs at four-way crossings. This means that the traffic approaching from the stream of traffic directly in front of you will be signalled to go at the same time, whereas traffic to the right and left will be signalled to stop. 

One of the most confusing scenarios involves taking a right-hand turn.

If you’re first in the queue at a junction like this and need to make a right-hand turn, first make sure you’re in the right lane and perform the usual mirror checks. Then, drive up to the point where you will make your turn. Whilst pausing at this point, make sure you’re not blocking any oncoming traffic. It’s safe to make your turn when there’s a gap in the traffic or when the lights for your stream of traffic have turned red. 

Just remember, when you move into position to make your right-hand turn at an intersection like this, you will have already passed the stop line. This means that even though the traffic lights for your stream of traffic might be red, the signal no longer applies to you, and you are free to go ahead with your turn.

What’s the difference between a pelican and puffin crossing?

Traffic lights that affect drivers can also be found at pedestrian crossings — both pelican and puffin.

At a pelican crossing, pedestrians press a button to request to cross, and then wait for the green man signal on the lights opposite. Drivers must stop when their light signal turns red, and can only cross a pelican crossing flashing on amber if all the pedestrians have finished crossing.

Newer puffin crossings, in contrast, have sensors that monitor levels of traffic and the presence of pedestrians at the crossing. These sensors help the puffin crossing react more intelligently to levels of road and foot traffic, staying red for longer if it senses more time is needed for pedestrians to cross.

For this reason, puffin crossings do not have a flashing amber signal as part of their traffic light sequence, as extra time isn’t usually needed. 

A few of the most frequently asked questions 

While navigating the UK traffic light sequence is often straightforward, we’ve found drivers often have questions when it comes to the rules of the road. 

Let’s look at three of the most popular: 

Can you go through an amber light?

Technically yes, you can go through an amber light — but only under the specific circumstances we discussed above. That is, if you’ve already crossed the junction’s white line, or you’re close enough to the line that stopping would be unsafe and potentially cause an accident. Or it could be if you’re at a pedestrian crossing and see a flashing amber signal, but again, only if the crossing is clear.

What happens if you run a red light? 

If you run a red light, you’ll be putting yourself and other road users in danger. As a result you’ll receive a fine and penalty points. Currently, the initial fine stands at £100 and three penalty points, but if you ignore the notice of prosecution (NIP) you could face an increased fine of £1,000, as well as six penalty points and prosecution. 

Is it true that traffic lights have cameras? 

Yes, it’s true that some traffic lights have cameras — especially in busy areas or where accidents are most likely to occur. But be aware that these cameras aren’t designed to flash (like some speed cameras do). 

Quickfire summary: The UK traffic light sequence

Knowing the UK traffic light sequence inside and out will help make you a better driver. Remember: traffic lights are designed to follow a predictable sequence, so you can always be prepared for what’s coming next. 

The UK traffic light sequence is red, red and amber, green, then amber. And while knowing what to do at these traffic light signals might seem obvious, many drivers find themselves getting caught out — especially at pedestrian crossings, or four-way intersections. 

So before you next get behind the wheel, make sure you know what to do in the case of every traffic light signal. This will help keep everyone safe on the road. 

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