Why Do Some Drivers Hit the Roof of Their Car Going Through a Yellow Light?

You’ve probably heard of common superstitions like avoiding the number 13, walking under ladders, and breaking mirrors. But are you familiar with driving superstitions? Some superstitions and myths — like the belief that motorcycles are allowed to run red lights — can lead to dangerous driving or unwanted legal trouble. For instance, what about drivers who punch the ceiling of their car when going through a yellow light?

The point of touching a car’s ceiling while barreling through a yellow light

A traffic light near downtown Chicago, Illinois, in 2005
Traffic light | Scott Olson/Getty Images

In a special Friday the 13th article, Toyota of North Charlotte listed five common driving superstitions and their origins. The belief that touching the ceiling of a vehicle while barreling through a yellow light is at the top of that list. Some drivers take it a few weird steps further by kissing the tips of their fingers before touching the ceiling.

According to the article, the drivers who do this are silently thanking something or someone for helping them make it through the yellow light without getting pulled over or struck by another vehicle. If you thought that sounded pretty ambiguous, it might have something to do with the fact that many drivers likely have no idea why they do it. 

It’s a perfect example of someone seeing someone else do something for luck. It worked, so why not adopt it? Going to Quora for answers only substantiates this, with one commenter writing that it’s “kind of like ‘knocking on wood’ for driving dangerously.”

Nevertheless, it’s highly advisable not to adopt a superstition that makes you take both hands off the wheel —especially when that superstition involves a common driving mistake cops look for.

What is the legality of driving through yellow lights?

Yellow traffic lights are meant to warn approaching drivers that it’s about to turn red. Imagine if traffic lights merely turned from green to red without warning. It would be like playing the traffic version of Squid Game but replaced by a Mack truck.

According to DriversEd: “A yellow signal light warns you that the red signal is about to appear. When you see the yellow light, you should stop, if you can do so safely. If you can’t stop, look out for vehicles that may enter the intersection when the light changes.”

Nowhere does it say, “When you see a yellow light, punch the gas, kiss your fingertips, and pound the ceiling.”

But is it illegal to do that? Well, presuming you were going the speed limit (not already going over it), you would likely break the speed limit trying to beat the red light. And if you had to speed up to beat the red light, it’s safe to assume you were far enough away to stop safely.

It’s important to know that some states, such as California, issue driving citations for failing to stop at a yellow light. However, it’s up to the officer’s discretion whether to cite you for doing so. This discretion might involve mitigating factors, like noticeably speeding through the intersection. Of course, there is the risk that the driver overestimated how long the yellow light would last.

Last, in most states, you will likely get ticketed for running a red light if it turns as you’re going through it. If a red light is what the cop sees as you’re mid-intersection, claiming it was yellow won’t work. And if it was a red-light camera that tagged you, start saving money to pay for that ticket when it comes in the mail.

Debunking other traffic light myths

Have you ever heard that traffic lights have sensors that detect the flashing lights of emergency vehicles? These sensors supposedly switch traffic lights from red to green to give first responders safer passage through intersections. So, will flashing your car’s high beams make the light turn green? It doesn’t exactly work that way.

According to Clark County, Nevada:

“Most traffic signals in Clark County are equipped with an Emergency Vehicle Preemption (EVP) feature that allows an emergency vehicle to change the traffic signal to green for the direction it is traveling. This is done by a white strobe light located on the top of the emergency vehicle that emits a coded flash pattern. The traffic signal detects the coded flash and changes the signal indication to give the approaching emergency vehicle a green indication.”

So, unless your high beams are as bright as strobe lights and you know the coded flash pattern, you will only succeed in attracting unwanted attention.

RELATED: Is it Ever Legal to Pass on a Double Solid Yellow Line?