The learner drivers' guide to traffic lights

Lesson Type
Last updated: 16 Oct 2019

Traffic lights are among the first challenges that you'll face when you learn to drive. They'll crop up in both your driving theory test and your practical test. They’re not particularly complicated, but you should make sure you understand what the traffic light sequence means and how to react to it. Failure to react correctly to traffic lights could cause you to fail your driving test or, even worse, cause an accident.

What are traffic lights?

Traffic lights are sets of two or more coloured lights which tell road users if it’s safe and/or legal to cross the path of other road users. In the UK, the colours used are green, amber and red. These colours are illuminated in a specific 4-phase pattern which is known as the traffic light sequence.

What is the UK traffic light sequence?

In the UK, most traffic lights follow this sequence:

  • Red - stop
  • Red and amber - prepare to go
  • Green - go (as long as the way is clear)
  • Amber - stop unless it’s not safe to do so

The traffic light sequence explained

  • Red – An illuminated red traffic light indicates that all road users should stop behind the line. The signal applies to everyone, even cyclists. Ignoring the red light is dangerous and could get you in quite a bit of trouble. Some traffic lights even have cheeky little cameras hidden inside them to spot people who run red lights.

  • Red and amber – Red and amber traffic lights illuminated together shows that the lights are about to change to green and that it’s okay for road users to get ready to go. You may release your handbrake and prepare to drive away, but you must not cross the line until the light turns green.

  • Green – When the green traffic light is illuminated it means that you may proceed, as long as the way is clear.

  • Amber – The amber traffic light means that you should stop unless it’s not safe to do so. It’s legal to pass through an amber light, but you only should do so if you’re too close to stop when it changes; don’t make a habit of it.

Traffic light stop lines

All sets of traffic lights will have a line at which drivers must stop. Sometimes, there’ll be a separate, differently-coloured section indicated for cyclists in front of the stop line; be sure to stay behind the line and don’t stray into the cyclists’ area.

Filter traffic lights

Filter traffic lights let road users know who has priority. They’re often used in areas prone to congestion and you’ll see variations with arrows pointing left, right and straight ahead. When the green arrow is illuminated, you may proceed in that direction, regardless of what the other lights are saying.

Tips for traffic lights in your driving test

Remember your MSPSL (mirrors, signal, position, speed, speed, look) routine. Anticipate what the lights might do. For example, if you’re approaching a set of traffic lights and they’ve been green for a while, chances are that they’ll change very soon. Don’t speed up in an attempt to ‘beat’ the lights.