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Hurricane Irene Exposes Traffic Law Myth

Maryland has no law governing right of way when power fails and traffic lights go dark.

didn't just knock down trees and cut off power.

The weekend storm that churned up the East Coast has inadvertently revealed a hole in Maryland's traffic laws, according to a regional motorist organization.

Scores of intersections were left without power in the days following the weekend storm, leaving government officials to plead for motorists to treat intersections with inoperable traffic lights as four-way stops.

But Maryland law does not require it.

"People think we have a law but we don't," said Ragina Averella, public and government affairs manager for AAA Mid-Atlantic. "I was a (Baltimore City) police officer and I thought we had a law."

Del. James Malone, chairman of the House subcommittee overseeing motor vehicles and transportation issues, agreed.

"It's surprising how many people think that there are laws on the books when they're really not on the books," said Malone, an Arbutus Democrat.

Malone said he's seen people in the last few days slow down as they approach intersections where the lights are out rather than coming to a stop.

"They're still moving and hoping that the other guy will stop," said Malone, who is a retired career firefighter who still volunteers at the Arbutus Volunteer Fire Department. "I'm hoping and praying we don't see any accidents because of this."

Averella said that while she believes "the majority of drivers use good judgment and courtesy to slow down when a signal isn’t functioning" inoperable lights are still a danger.

"Intersections, especially large intersections, where the traffic lights aren't functioning pose a serious safety risk," Averella said. "Intersections can be dangerous even when the lights are working."

For some, there is an "every-man-for-himself rule that prevails and pervades during rush hour" when traffic lights are out, Averella said.

As of Tuesday afternoon, there were 76 state road intersections where lights were inoperable. Baltimore County officials reported another 30 on county roads.

Since the storm, county and state officials have repeatedly asked the motorists to treat the intersections as four-way stops. At the intersection of North Charles Street and Bellona Avenue, police positioned cones and stop signs to clearly define traffic flow.

So far, Baltimore County officials said they have seen no increase in motor vehicle accidents. Concern about the intersections was such that County Executive Kevin Kamenetz announced Monday that county police would be stationed in intersections where the lights are out.

In Harford County, Maryland State Police during rush hour Monday.

“It’s things like that that really start to eat at your resources,” said Lt. Chuck Moore from the Bel Air Barrack.

Richard Muth, executive director of the Maryland Emergency Management Agency, said Monday that to come up with a solution.

"A lot of these are handled on the local level, and the problem is there are so many that they can't (all) be covered," Muth said.

He encouraged drivers to treat the intersections as four-way stops.

But Averella said there is confusion among drivers about how to treat the intersections. The lack of a law doesn't help, she said.

"You hate to legislate everything," Averella said.

A bill requiring motorists to treat the intersections as four-way stops has been introduced in 2008, 2009 and 2010. None of the bills passed. AAA Mid-Atlantic supported the bill all three times.

Malone said the trouble with similar so-called common sense transportation legislation is that "in Annapolis, everyone drives and everyone has an opinion."

Averella said Maryland needs such a law and her organization will press legislators to revisit the issue next year.

Malone said he'd be willing to look at the issue as early as the special session scheduled for the week of Oct. 17.

"We definitely are going to have to address this," Malone said.

"I can promise you I will sit down with everyone and try to find out if there was anything we learned from (Hurricane Irene) so that this never happens again," Malone said. "Maybe we can come up with something during the special session."

Bryan P. Sears September 02, 2011 at 11:43 AM
ESA: Are you speaking of this: "When a traffic signal is not working, you should approach the intersection slowly, being prepared to stop and yield to other traffic. Then proceed only when the way is clear. If the street lights are not functioning, be sure to keep your headlights on to assist you with visibility and to ensure others can see you as well."
Bryan P. Sears September 02, 2011 at 03:12 PM
ESA: Spoke with Christine Delise at AAA Mid-Atlantic. They worked pretty closely with state police determining what laws were on the books. The do not agree that this language is a law requiring four way stops. "The way the language is written, it looks like you need to be prepared to stop but it doesn't tell you when you need to stop or who should stop. It's kind of vague," Delise told me. Delise is pretty clear that AAA Mid-Atlantic is not saying a four-way stop is best practice at all intersections where the lights are out. She said they are clear that the law doesn't require motorists to treat it that way.
Lorna D. Rudnikas September 03, 2011 at 09:36 PM
Wow!! "When a traffic signal is not working......" So no one really has a "right of way?" Brings a vision to mind of a four way intersection filled to the brim with motorists just stopping and yielding to "other traffic!!" And of course the question is- who is on first, second, third and fourth? What a disaster!! Always thought yielding to the car on the "right" works just fine--- slow----but just fine when everyone abides by it like in a fourway stop.
BC September 03, 2011 at 09:45 PM
On Sunday, my two sons were involved in a serious accident when the oldest one cme to a stop at such an intersection and after crossing the first part of the intersection he was side swiped by a truck doing 50mph.. Thank god the car took the brunt of it and despited being totaled both boys walked away unharmed. The other driver was cited with negligent driving as he never slowed down approaching the intersection and basically stopped when he impacted our car.
Tim September 03, 2011 at 10:34 PM
I'm glad your sons are okay, despite the terrible and inconsiderate driving of that other person.

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