California Power crisis: New blackouts may trigger added crashes : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

Thursday, March 22, 2001 1:28 AM MST Power crisis: New blackouts may trigger added crashes

By Greg Risling Associated Press

LOS ANGELES -- When rolling blackouts douse traffic lights, some motorists hit the gas while others slam on the brakes as they approach the dark intersection.

The ensuing confusion has caused a handful of accidents across the state and rattled drivers' nerves. With no permanent solution to the power crisis in sight, the prospects of daily blackouts this summer could lead to more crashes, traffic jams and headaches for officers who have to police the intersections.

But the main challenge has been educating motorists about the proper rules of the road when a traffic signal is shut down.

Cynthia Byrne, a San Francisco parking enforcement officer, was drafted to direct traffic at a blacked out intersection downtown Tuesday. She said some people were trying to roll through the intersection, rather than taking their turns.

"They get so used to using the lights that they don't do four-way stops anymore," Byrne said.

The state's vehicle code requires motorists to treat lightless traffic signals like a four-way stop. The motorist who approaches the intersection first -- and comes to a complete stop -- has the right of way. If there are pedestrians entering an intersection, they still have priority, police said.

"Some people aren't paying attention and blowing right through intersections, which is obviously very dangerous," said San Francisco police Officer James McKeever. "But I think we are seeing more and more people realizing something is wrong with the signals and slowing down."

A 60-year-old Riverside man barreled through an intersection without traffic lights in South El Monte on Tuesday and struck a vehicle driven by a 28-year-old woman, police said. Both drivers suffered moderate injuries and were taken to area hospitals. Both are expected to survive.

Toby Tran, 29, of Aliso Viejo was driving near his home Tuesday when he struck another car in an intersection where the traffic signal was dark.

"I tried to stop and I couldn't," Tran said. "There was no light. Nothing."

The recent rash of blackouts affecting traffic signals has prompted local municipalities to find remedies to future traffic signal problems caused by blackouts. Several Orange County cities are considering placing emergency batteries that will allow lights to flash red during blackouts. Other cities are using police officers to direct traffic or placing stop signs to warn oncoming motorists.

But some jurisdictions complain they don't have enough time to respond to blackouts. Utilities give city officials just about 15 minutes of warning and by the time they are able to respond (blackouts only last about an hour), power has been restored. In some cases, the delay is exacerbated because the signals have to be manually reset after electricity is returned.

The city of San Francisco has asked the state's Public Utilities Commission to require power provider Pacific Gas and Electric to provide specific details about where rolling blackouts will occur and give them more time to respond to power outages.

"There is a compelling safety issue in getting that information," said Deputy City Attorney Theresa Mueller. "If PG&E doesn't give us the necessary information we need to provide safe measures for our residents, they (PG&E) should also be responsible for the consequences."

Whether a municipality or a utility is liable for any problems at dark intersections remains a nebulous legal question. Greg Keating, a law professor at the University of Southern California, said motorists hoping to win a lawsuit stemming from accidents indirectly caused by a traffic signal outage would be "a longshot."

"It would take some very special circumstances to trigger responsibility on a municipality or utility," Keating said. "Extreme negligence on behalf of the city or power company would have to be proven because ultimately it's the driver's responsibility to stop at those intersections."

Traffic signal etiquette during power outages Tips for getting through an intersection where a power outage has disabled signals:

-- Treat it like a four-way stop. All vehicles are supposed to come to a complete stop before moving into the intersection. The vehicle that reaches the corner first -- and comes to a complete stop -- has the right of way.

-- If two vehicles arrive at the intersection at the same time, the vehicle on the right has the right of way.

-- Vehicles turning at a dark intersection are supposed to yield to oncoming traffic.

-- Pedestrians attempting to enter or cross a marked intersection have priority. Motorists are supposed to stop for pedestrians in crosswalks at intersections with disabled traffic signals.

-- Associated Press

-- Martin Thompson (, March 22, 2001

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