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City to change signals in effort to stop crashes

Published: Friday, March 15, 2013 at 8:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, March 14, 2013 at 3:16 p.m.

In an effort to reduce one of the leading causes of automobile collisions in Petaluma, the city will soon begin modifying traffic signals at 26 intersections around town to restrict when drivers can turn left.

The intersections to be targeted currently allow drivers to make a “permissive” left turn on a solid green light. Permissive signals let drivers turn left on a regular green light — without the protection of a green arrow that indicates all other traffic is stopped — so long as they yield to oncoming traffic.

An example of this kind of signal is at East Washington Street and Lakeville Street, which saw the most accidents of any intersection in town in 2011 and 2012.

These types of signals tend to lead to right-of-way collisions, where a driver fails to yield properly to another vehicle.

The move to change the signals comes after officials found that the top cause of local collisions in 2010 was right-of-way violations, many of them taking place at intersections which allow left turns on green lights. In 2012, right-of-way violations remained the second highest cause of car accidents behind speeding.

“People try to squeeze through (in front of another car), get distracted, or don't see an oncoming car,” said Petaluma Police Sgt. Ken Savano, explaining why more accidents occur at these intersections.

Indeed, a study by the Police Department and UC Berkeley Institute of Transportation Studies found that this type of signal “opens the possibility for a driver to make last minute decisions that can cause an accident,” and recommended changes to all such intersections. In some cases, this will mean installing a new style of signal, one that includes a flashing yellow arrow. The flashing yellow arrow, according to city staff, has been shown to help drivers distinguish between the protected turn phase, when they can safely turn left on a green arrow without worrying about oncoming traffic, and the permissive phase, when they must yield.

Petaluma will be only the second city in the county to use this new technology; Santa Rosa implemented the flashing signals in January.

Other intersections will be modified to allow left-hand turns only on a green arrow.

In 2010, the city received a $441,000 federal grant to make changes to the signals, and it is now preparing to send the project out to bid.

The project is expected to get underway within a few months, at which point the city will begin a campaign to educate drivers about the new signals.

It's just one of many measures the city will be taking to reduce collisions after analyzing traffic accident trends from 2012. Those trends showed an increase over 2010 and 2011 in the instances of fatal collisions, hit-and-run collisions, and alcohol-involved collisions.

Savano, who heads the Police Department's traffic team, compiles a yearly summary of traffic statistics to identify problem areas for the department to target.

He noted that Washington Street, always a busy street with lots of accidents, featured even more prominently in 2012 in the list of top 10 intersections where the most collisions occurred. Indeed, the five intersections with the highest number of crashes were all located along Washington Street, including 10 crashes at East Washington and Lakeville Streets; nine at East Washington Street and Ely Boulevard South; nine at Washington Street and Keller Street; eight at East Washington Street and McDowell Boulevard; and seven at East Washington Street and Payran Street.

As a result, Savano said, drivers can expect a much larger police presence along the main artery, where road work continues along many stretches of the road.

Officers will also be keeping an eye out for speeders, as this was the number one cause of collisions in 2012. People might think going five miles over the speed limit isn't so bad, Savano said, but this is a mistake: “It all comes down to perception and reaction time,” he said. “When we're out there we're trying to keep motorists in a safe speed range for everyone involved.”

Another key danger to drivers went largely undocumented, according to Savano: distracted driving. He said this is because it's often hard to prove that someone was distracted by a cell phone after a collision has occurred. But, Savano noted, it's clear that large numbers of people are distracted on a regular basis.

“Everyone is always looking down at their phones; it's very scary,” he said. “It's the most significant safety threat to motorists, probably greater than DUI.”

The department currently has grant money to target distracted driving and will do so this year, he said. The department has numerous distracted driving enforcement operations planned.

(Contact Jamie Hansen at jamie.hansen@ar guscourier.com.)

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