When traffic lights aren’t working it’s a 4-way stop

Q: Can you explain how drivers are supposed to proceed at a busy intersection when there is a power outage? There was an intersection with all the lights out, and I witnessed a significant number of potential crashes from drivers not yielding when they were supposed to. How can we make sure that there is less of a risk for traffic collisions?

A: We should install illuminated signs at intersections so that when the power goes out they light up with instructions on how to proceed without traffic lights. Wait, I see a problem with that idea.

I might be misremembering, but it seems like the power used to go out more often when I was a kid. With each good windstorm or silver thaw, the power lines would come down. The family with the woodstove (that was us) would invite over the neighbors and we’d cook a big bowl of soup.

That doesn’t happen much anymore, at least where I live. If it’s the same for you, it might have been a while since you’ve encountered an intersection with inoperative traffic signals. Sometimes the solution to one problem is the origin of a new one. In this case, it seems like more reliable power has caused people to forget how to drive when it does go out.

We’re coming into fall (and the windy months), so this seems like a good time to have a refresher on driving through intersections controlled by traffic signals when the power is out. And while weather is a major contributor to power outages, we should be prepared to navigate intersections without power at any time. You never know when an inattentive driver in a Hummer is going to take out the signal controller cabinet. No disrespect to Hummer owners; it’s a size thing. A Geo Metro might not have the same outcome. For those of you under 30, the Geo Metro was a tiny car from the 1990s.

Navigating an intersection with nonfunctioning signal lights is actually pretty simple. It just becomes an all-way stop. After stopping, yield to drivers already in the intersection, and if two drivers arrive at the same time, the one on the left yields to the one on the right.

Here’s the problem: You know that thing you do at four-way stops when as you approach the stop sign you look around to see what order you’re going to go? You probably don’t bother to do that at intersections with traffic lights. Why would you? When the lights control who goes next, you don’t need to know if you got to the intersection before or after the car to your right.

Now you’re approaching that same intersection, but the power is out, and you’re not in the habit of checking to see where you fit in with the flow. You get to the stop line and realize you have no idea whose turn is next. I suspect this is a major contributor to conflict and disharmony when the lights don’t work.

What’s the solution? I bet your driver’s ed teacher told you to always scan the road 10 to 15 seconds ahead of your vehicle. When you see hazards early it gives you more options to respond. Scan ahead, and you’ll spot the inoperable traffic signal with plenty of time to prepare.

Traffic signals only get installed at intersections that are busy enough to deserve them. When the signals are out you’re forced to use a suboptimal process for that location, so it’s a good time to practice patience and have some grace for other drivers.

Doug Dahl writes a weekly traffic column for this newspaper. He is with the state Traffic Safety Commission.