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Why you better not run a red light in Europe

July 29th, 2009

My high school years were spent in Laguna Beach, Calif., where, after school, I worked for the local newspaper as editor of its “Teenpage.” It was a great job. Interviewed Timothy Leary, Grace Slick and a whole bunch of other 60s icons who visited Laguna.

Back in those days, unlike today, we could accept freebies, and they included free passes to Orange County International Raceway, a fancy drag strip about 10 miles away, alongside the El Toro Marine Corps air base. (The base was closed years ago and is being turned into a regional park and the raceway site is filled with office buildings, nice apartments and the Spectrum shopping center with a Nordstrom’s, a huge Target, boutique retailers, some nice restaurants and a thousand-plex movie theater.)

On occasion, back in the late 1960s, I would take a date to the Saturday night drag races and sit in the VIP viewing tower (free sodas!), but usually I went alone, and with my press pass stood down at the starting line, taking pictures of the growling dragsters’ fire-spittin’, tire-smokin’ duels. At the starting line, the drivers focused all their attention on the “Christmas tree” starting lights. There were white lights on top that would glow when the dragster’s front tires had found the starting line, and then a vertical three-pack of yellow lights, with a green light on the bottom.  When both dragsters were set, the starter would begin the light sequence that, altogether, lasted maybe a second: yellow yellow yellow GREEN! (Below it was the red light, which would shine if a driver jumped the gun.)

That’s almost how it works in Europe. If you’ve already got the green light, it will turn to a flashing green, then yellow, then red.  If it’s flashing green, you’ve got a few more seconds to make it across the  intersection. If it’s yellow, you slow down so when it turns red, you are stopped. And you’d better stop, because the cross-traffic motorists will be raring to go. And here’s why: The red light will be joined by a yellow light before going green. Yellow tells the driver to engage the clutch because it’s almost show time. No one wants to sit at a green light while the fellow in front of you is trying to shift into first.

The moment the European traffic signal turns green, motorists fly into the intersection, confident that the cross traffic will already have stopped.  Nobody in Europe, as far as I can tell, runs a red light.

Las Vegans would not last long in Europe. They’d run red lights and get T-boned by some guy in a Smart car.

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