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Who is at fault if a car hits me when running a yellow?

I was 60 per cent through the intersection on a yellow light when a taxi driver hit the drivers' rear tire/fender of my car causing me to spin out through the intersection. When we reported to the insurance company, the driver insisted he had no liability and that I ran a red. I recall the light being yellow when I entered the intersection. I presume it is possible that the light turned red before I was fully through the intersection thus giving him a green light. I feel that once I committed, I had the right of way to clear the intersection in a safe manner. — Dave, Vancouver

Red means stop, period. And so does yellow.

"The law says that you have to stop at a yellow light unless it's unsafe to do so," says Vancouver Police Const. Brian Montague. "If you don't, then: one, it's just really dangerous and two, you're breaking the law."

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If that yellow light was signalling a car-sized anvil was about to fall in the middle of the intersection, most of us probably wouldn't go through. Instead, a lot of us treat the lights like a dare — we've got to squeeze through in time. And we assume that, if the light turns red while we're zipping through, oncoming drivers won't hit us.

"Don't trust anybody else on the road to do what they're supposed to do, because you just don't know, right?" Montague says. "You don't know if they're paying attention and actually have seen you."

What the law says

In B.C., sections 127-129 of the Motor Vehicle Act cover green, yellow and traffic lights.

In Ontario, they're covered by section 44 of the Highway Traffic Act.

Wording varies by province. In B.C. the law says to stop on yellow "unless the stop cannot be made in safety." In Ontario, it says a driver has to stop on yellow "if he or she can do so safely, otherwise he or she may proceed with caution."

Whether it's safe or not to stop is a judgment call says, Toronto Police Traffic Services Const. Clint Stibbe.

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"If you think you'll slide into the intersection or there's a tractor trailer right behind you, you might decide to proceed, but keep in mind that you are taking a chance," Stibbe says.

In B.C. the law does say that drivers with a green light must yield to drivers and pedestrians who were lawfully in the intersection when the light turned green. Ontario's law doesn't say this.

An example of being lawfully in the intersection? A driver who was waiting in the middle of the intersection to turn left and was there before the light went amber.

Stibbe says in Ontario there's no "right of way" to clear an intersection once you enter it, period.

"In driving school you're taught not to enter the intersection unless you can clear it before the light changes," Stibbe says. "If you're stuck trying to clear the intersection, you've made a bad decision."

We think yellow lights just suddenly happen, but they don't, Stibbe says.

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"The majority of the intersections in Toronto have countdown times, so if I'm approaching and I see that timer I slow down," he says. "As a result I shouldn't be surprised before the light change."

If there's no timer, the flashing hand tells you the light will change soon

"But most people don't look beyond the hood of their car let alone, what's happening down the road," he says.

Faultfinding

Insurance companies look at police reports, driver and witness stories and evidence from red light cameras to figure out who's at fault in a crash. In Ontario, insurance adjusters use fault determination rules to decide how much each driver will pay.

B.C. doesn't have those. Instead the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia (ICBC) decides fault case-by-case.

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We asked ICBC whether both drivers would be at fault when a car gets hit as an amber light changes. They said they couldn't speculate, even hypothetically.

Vancouver Police's Montague suggests avoiding a crash in the first place instead of figuring out who is to blame after one.

"Intersections are extremely dangerous places — they're where the majority of accidents happen," he says. "There's a lot of emphasis put on who is at fault and who has right of way but if you're sitting in a hospital bed, that sort of becomes a bit of a secondary thought."

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