From Towson Patch
Hurricane Irene Exposes Traffic Law Myth
Maryland has no law governing right of way when power fails and traffic lights go dark.
By Bryan P. Sears August 30, 2011
Irene 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 positioned troopers in a number of intersections 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 state officials were huddling 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."