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How do you treat intersections when traffic signals are out?

March 13, 2017 by Steven M. Gursten

Robert Raitt of Michigan Auto Law was on Fox 2’s ‘Let It Rip’ on whether drivers should treat an intersection with traffic signals that are out as a ‘4-way-stop’

The Michigan State Police caused a big controversy — and probably a few car accidents as well — with this tweet from March 7 regarding traffic signals when they’re out:

But is this a good idea, or bad advice?

Most drivers in Michigan now treat an intersection with the traffic signal out as a four-way stop. The MSP tweeting after the big windstorm in Metro Detroit that we should, instead, now be treating the situation as “[t]he intersection reverts back to the basic right-of-way requirements, not a four-way stop” seems ill-advised.

Lee Mosurak, responding to the MSP tweet, perfectly summarizing the danger with the MSP’s new interpretation of the law.

Michigan Auto Law trial attorney Robert Raitt on the traffic signals issue on Detroit’s Fox News ‘Let it Rip’

Fox 2 News Detroit asked Michigan Auto Law trial attorney and partner Robert Raitt about this on “Let It Rip” this past Sunday morning. Bobby answered the question that many people were asking after both the unprecedented wind storms that recently knocked out power to much Detroit and Oakland and Macomb counties.

Here’s what Bobby had to say:

“Common practice and common sense tell you that if you come upon a light that is failed or it’s not working, it’s a four-way-stop.”

Bobby made the point that drivers should stop at an intersection whose traffic is normally controlled by now-non-functioning signals. Drivers should stop as if there were “stop” signs telling them to do so and, then, only after they’ve determined it’s safe to proceed, continue through the intersection.

Bobby Raitt is an automobile accident attorney of 25 years’ experience. He is also the past president of the Michigan Association for Justice. He is a respected advocate who has recovered some of the top verdicts and settlements in the state for his clients, including the top reported negligence jury verdict in the state last year.

I think Bobby is 100% correct on this. As Bobby said:

“[I]f everyone stops and uses caution, there’s not going to be [an auto] accident …”

Dangers of four-way-stops at broken traffic signals and failure to yield

Bobby made an excellent public safety point about the effect of drivers failing to properly yield:

“I’ve been a practicing attorney at Michigan Auto Law for 25 years. 95% of what we do are serious auto, truck, and motorcycle accidents. I have never had a case as a result of an injury at a four-way-stop. I have had thousands of cases for failure to yield. It’s one of the most causes of serious auto accidents.”

The real danger here is that the Michigan State Police have tweeted an interpretation of a law that Bobby and I both feel is incorrect and unsafe.

It is also different from what the vast majority of people in this state now believe.

The MSP’s [new] public position on intersections without functioning traffic lights further seems to sacrifice public safety in exchange for faster traffic flow (perhaps!). But when a huge storm — such as the one we saw last week that left over 700,000 people in Metro Detroit without power — occurs, isn’t it wiser in these extremely unusual, rare, and very dangerous occasions to treat the intersection with traffic signals that are out as a four-way stop? And isn’t Bobby’s interpretation one that most drivers already believe?

Bobby’s interpretation is a safer way to handle the situation. This new MSP interpretation of the law — which most people have no idea about anyway — should be changed back to be aligned with the public’s already-existing belief on what to do when traffic signals are out at an intersection.

The real danger here is what happens next. What happens when more drivers adopt the MSP interpretation but the majority of drivers continue to treat these intersections as a four-way stop?

The result will be a lot more car accidents at intersections.

The real problem here is ‘traffic signals’ are out on Michigan’s intersection law

Note that I’ve referred to the MSP position in their tweet as an “interpretation” of an unclear law.

Michigan’s Motor Vehicle Code does not specifically address what drivers are supposed to do — or are required to do — when an intersection’s traffic signals are out and not functioning.

There’s also nothing about this scenario in either the “Traffic … Signals” division or the “Right-Of-Way” division. The Michigan State Police are looking at MCL 257.649 and saying it should be applied to this situation.

To the extent the MSP Trooper on Sunday’s “Let It Rip” show — as well as the Michigan State Police and the Secretary of State, in general — is suggesting that drivers should just continue, without stopping, at an intersection whose traffic signal is not functioning, then they are offering an interpretation of a law that is itself unclear. It is, in the respectful opinion of our own auto accident attorneys, both reckless and dangerous advice. And, arguably, it is unsupported by Michigan law as the statute they are referencing here does not specifically apply to this situation.

Both Bobby Raitt and I have litigated hundreds of serious automobile accidents. We’ve also deposed countless Michigan State Police and MSP accident reconstructionists in the course of these cases. One thing that every qualified human factors expert and accident reconstructionist will say is that people are very bad at estimating the speeds of other vehicles. But the new MSP interpretation asks us to do just this — and giving Michigan drivers a split second or two to estimate these speeds as they approach the intersection. It is also creating a situation where some cars and trucks are going to try to deliberately speed up as they approach an intersection so they can assume the the right of way.

The answer to the problem of what to do at an intersection? Have an answer.

It’s time for the state Legislature to get involved and specifically clarify the law in this situation.

Who knows — maybe Rep. Pete Lucido, who was on the show this morning (and who I have previously debated on the show in the past), will take up the issue?

For more on intersections, visit our Michigan’s Most Dangerous Intersections page for a complete list of intersection car crashes that can be searched by any Michigan city or county, and our list of Michigan’s 2016 Top 20 Most Dangerous Intersections.

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