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Do I have to stop if traffic lights aren't working?

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

One thing that still confuses me is how to treat an intersection when the traffic lights are out.

Radio announcers say to treat it like a four-way stop, but as far as I can tell from the Ontario Highway Traffic Act, there is no such law. Rather, as far as I can tell, it is an uncontrolled intersection, and stopping is not required. Stopping is only required so as to yield the right of way to others who have arrived first or, if having arrived at the same time, the vehicle on the right. As far as I can tell, if no one else is at the intersection, there is no requirement to stop, and it is not a four-way stop. — Daniel

You took about 50 words to explain, correctly, how uncontrolled intersections are technically supposed to work.

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"Treat 'em like a four-way stop" takes seven — and it's safer, experts say.

"The safest action for the general driving population is to have every driver treat it as an all-way stop," says Scott Marshall, driving safety blogger and driving instructor with Young Drivers of Canada.

Ontario's Highway Traffic Act (HTA) says that when power is out and the traffic lights do not work, the intersection becomes an uncontrolled intersection, says Bob Nichols, a spokesman for Ontario's Ministry of Transportation, in an email.

An uncontrolled intersection has no working lights, stop sign, traffic cop or yield signs directing traffic – you're on your own. You're supposed to yield to vehicles already in the intersection and to vehicles entering the intersection from your right.

There's no specific requirement to stop – but stopping at dead traffic lights has become common practise, Nichols said.

In fact, the official MTO Driver's Handbook says that when traffic lights are out, "Go cautiously and use the intersection the same way you would use an intersection with all-way stop signs."

So, in reality, if cars are coming, treat it as a four-way stop.

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"(It's) first come, first served – if it's a tie, the driver to the right should be given the right of way," Marshall says. "If two vehicles approach each other at the same time and one is turning left, the driver going straight should be allowed to go first — if the driver turning left stopped obviously first, they should be given the right of way."

If the light is out and there's no cars around, then you can go through – cautiously – without stopping, Marshall says.

"Slowing to have a good look is a good idea just to ensure no one else is rocketing through the intersection from the cross direction," he says.

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