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Surviving stoplight blackouts
Who has the right of way at an intersection when the stoplight is not working because of a power outage? A new state law tries to clear the confusion

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Date published: 8/18/2004


YOU ARE DRIVING along in busy traffic on a crowded thoroughfare-- let's say Garrisonville Road, or maybe U.S. 17--when you notice that the stoplights are not working.

Apparently, there's a power outage. And as far as you can see, there are no green, yellow or red lights to help the multitude of frustrated drivers pass safely through the intersections.

Quickwho has the right of way?

Your car?

The big dump truck nudging its way into the traffic flow on the right?

Or maybe that SUV full of children and soccer balls trying to make a left turn in front of you?

And while you're making up your mind, don't even think about that tractor-trailer getting bigger and bigger in your rearview mirror. You have at least a couple of seconds before impact.

That's pretty much the situation I experienced recently on State Route 610--Garrisonville Road--during the first few moments of a midday blackout.

And the traffic situation was pretty much a free-for-all. The main flow of drivers heading east and west dominated. Anyone trying to enter Garrisonville Road from one of the shopping areas could expect a long wait. And if you were trying to make a left turn well, forget it.

The episode prompted me to call the Stafford Sheriff's Office to inquire about safety procedures on the county's thoroughfares during a blackout.

"It's funny you should ask," said sheriff's Sgt. Brian Jacobs, the supervisor of the traffic safety division. "Because a new law just took effect in July that deals with that very problem."

Jacobs looked up the new code to get its exact wording. Here's what it says:

"If the traffic lights controlling an intersection are out of service because of a power failure or other event that prevents the giving of signals by the traffic lights, the drivers of vehicles approaching such an intersection shall proceed as though such intersection were controlled by a stop sign on all approaches."

Jacobs said that means all drivers should stop first, and then follow the normal pattern of a four-way intersection.

"It's a courtesy issue," Jacobs said. "We all have a place to get to. We just need to be patient."

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