Become a digitalPLUS subscriber. $12 for 12 weeks.
News Opinion Editorial

Mixed signals about non-functioning traffic lights

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.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
Related Content
  • BGE deserves an 'F' for post-Irene performance

    I was one of many at the Public Service Commission's hearing Tuesday night who had a story to share about BGE's poor performance after Hurricane Irene. The meeting did not start out well, as the 100 plus group of people who showed up were locked out of the building due to the failure of the PSC...

  • BGE sticks it to customers

    After leaving Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. customers without power for up to eight days and with a poorly functioning customer service line in the wake of Hurricane Irene, it's appalling that Constellation Energy Group would have the nerve to turn around and ask us to foot the bill for...

  • Will BGE remember the lessons of Irene?
    Will BGE remember the lessons of Irene?

    One unhappy customer's list of things the utility needs to improve

  • No love for the weather watchers
    No love for the weather watchers

    Meteorologists and those of us who are simply fascinated by storms get little affection from the public

  • Divine retribution or just a passing storm?

    In his letter ridiculing the "Bible thumpers" who believe hurricanes and other natural disasters are punishments from God, Luther Starnes appears to promote a common but dangerous misconception when he writes that "attributing destruction and vengeance to an all-loving God could border on...

  • Not mad, just frustrated by BGE

    This isn't another letter bashing BGE for being slow to restore power after Hurricane Irene, or for my neighborhood losing power every time a nearby bird coughs.

  • Wireless electricity: The wave of the future?

    Dan Rodricks's commentary "Big fix: Buried power lines, anyone?" (Sept. 4) offered a creative idea to improve America's infrastructure. But something more radical is needed. Flooding or other environmental problems could still disturb buried power lines. Wireless electricity could solve the...

  • Without lights, running water or plumbing

    I live in the Phoenix area of Baltimore County and we didn't get power back in our homes until Sept. 2. I understand that power has to be restored to hospitals, nursing homes, emergency treatment centers and other places of critical importance. But BGE should have given more priority to the...

Comments
Loading