Mixed signals about non-functioning traffic lights

Our view: How should motorists react when a traffic signal is not working? The state doesn't say

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August 31, 2011

If Hurricane Irene has accomplished anything — aside from causing Gov. Martin O'Malley to spend what seems like his every waking hour touring flood damage and power outages for the TV cameras — it's to demonstrate that a great many Maryland drivers don't know what to do when a traffic signal is out of operation.

Perhaps you have had the frustrating experience of getting stuck at a blacked-out intersection where drivers don't seem to understand who should cross the road next. You first. No, after you. Please, I insist. Then suddenly everyone moves in at once.

More problematic are the aggressive drivers who seem to believe that a non-functioning signal gives them the right of way and fly through an intersection as if no signal had ever been in place there. They are a traffic collision waiting to happen.

For the record, Maryland law is — rather incredibly — silent on the subject. The only restriction spelled out in the Transportation Article is that drivers entering through expressway exit ramps onto highways with a "nonfunctioning traffic control signal" must stop before entering the highway. It does not speak to ordinary intersections.

In some places around the country, an intersection with a malfunctioning signal is treated as an all-way stop. That's certainly appealing for busy crossings with traffic running in opposing directions — and from our experience, that's how motorists in the Baltimore region have treated most intersections in recent days.

But even that simple rule can become complicated. Should it apply at intersections with complex patterns of movement — a 6-way stop, an 8-way? Or, in the case of extremely busy boulevards with minor side streets, should traffic really be expected to come to a full stop even when no other cars are anywhere in sight?

One rule can't necessarily be applied to all circumstances in a state with a wide variety of rural, suburban and urban signalized intersections. The better alternative might be to adopt a law requiring drivers to slow down and be prepared to yield when approaching an intersection where a signal is not functioning. In some cases, that would translate to an all-way stop, but not always. Motorists would be expected to exercise caution but not be forced to treat all intersections as exactly the same.

Unfortunately, legislation to require drivers to exercise such caution has failed to win approval in the Maryland General Assembly several times since 2007, most recently in 2010, despite support from some traffic safety experts. Apparently, lawmakers are like their fellow Maryland motorists — uncertain about what to do in unusual circumstances.

According to the State Highway Administration, at least 141 intersections on state roads lost power after Irene with 48 still not functioning as of mid-day Wednesday. Many more local intersections were affected. But there have been few, if any, reports of serious accidents as a result — a sign that motorists are already exercising some common sense and good judgment.

But the problem is that storms like Irene (and widespread power outages) are relatively rare. The more common situation usually involves individual intersections losing signal function, if not from a storm then a traffic accident or other power interruption. Drivers need to know how to handle the unexpected — and that requires a clear law on the books.

One other helpful step would be for the SHA and the agency's local counterparts to provide battery backups to more traffic signals across the state. Batteries are no solution for a week-long blackout, of course, but they are capable of keeping a signal on flashing mode for eight hours, and that's usually enough time for repair crews or police to remedy the situation.

On Jan. 6, 2006, two college students died in a collision at Route 175 and Interstate 95 in Severn when a truck exiting I-95 failed to stop at a signal that was not functioning. That Howard County incident is the reason Maryland law specifically speaks to highway-to-highway stop lights. That signal, incidentally, now has a battery backup.

Still, it shouldn't require a similar tragedy, whether as a result of Irene-induced power outages or some other incident, to motivate lawmakers to address signal failures at other types of intersections. Setting a sensible rule and then educating drivers about it is the least they can do.

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