Flashing yellow turn signals may be convenient, but they pose new risks

There aren't many of them yet in Inner Southeast Portland, but there will be. If you've done some driving around the area, particularly in Washington County, you've seen them: Flashing yellow turn signals.

The idea is that instead of waiting for the once-a-cycle green turn arrow when you are waiting for a left turn, you get to make the turn anytime during the green cycle in your direction, as long as the yellow turn light is flashing, and as long as it is safe to do so. The appeal to convenience (and those who hate to wait even a millisecond) is obvious. And, it may seem to you there is no downside. But, we submit, there is.

The downside is safety.

Here's the thing. The oncoming cars don't know if or when you are going to try to make a turn. They assume you are not going to, if you are stopped in the left turn lane ahead, and they have the green light. If you suddenly pull out in front of them, it may catch them by surprise.

If YOU are the one making the turn, you may be so intent on avoiding oncoming traffic that you don't notice that somebody is walking in the crosswalk, or riding a bike in the turn lane, to your left. This is not a theoretical hazard; it has already happened.

On August 20, in full daylight, 73-year-old Clark Henry, described as 'the oldest competitive bicyclist in Oregon', was pedaling through the Beaverton intersection of S.W. Allen Boulevard at Western Avenue in the bike lane and with the green light, when a woman facing him in the turn lane suddenly turned at a flashing yellow turn signal and ran him down. At last report he was in fair condition at OHSU Hospital with broken ribs and a collapsed lung.

Usually, oncoming traffic in both directions see a flashing yellow turn light at the same time, so at least drivers are aware of the possibility someone could make a turn in front of them. But, there are a few intersections already where the danger is much higher...because the oncoming motorists do not know that drivers coming the other way have that option.

There are at least two of them so far that we have seen. One is on the Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway at S.W. 39th Drive, where there is a Union 76 gas station on the northwest side of the intersection. The gas station is on a corner where a road curves north from the main highway - but there is no similar road on the other side of the intersection...just a hillside. So, drivers going east see the flashing yellow turn light that they can use; westbound drivers see NO turn light at all, because there is no left turn they can make.

In this case, the westbound motorist simply must know from experience that someone could unexpectedly turn in front of them - or they unknowingly risk a collision by being unaware of the possibility that an eastbound driver in the left turn lane may unexpectedly turn in front of them when they themselves have a green light.

This is the same sort of issue we have always had with pedestrian-operated lights, such as at S.E. Tolman and 17th in Westmoreland - to drivers on 17th, there is a green traffic light, unless a pedestrian has stepped up and pushed a button to activate the light red on 17th so they can safely cross. But, the motorist traveling either direction on Tolman sees no traffic light at all in front of them at 17th, may be unaware there is any traffic control at the intersection, and could pull out in front of a car that sees a green light and assumes that the Tolman driver has a red.

By the way, we are informed by a law enforcement officer that, unlike preparing for a left turn on a regular green light, you cannot edge into the intersection on a flashing yellow turn light. When you are waiting to turn at a standard traffic light intersection, without a turn light, you are permitted to pull into the intersection a bit to be ready to make your turn - and if the light turns yellow while you are there, you are permitted to complete your turn when oncoming traffic stops.

But if you are waiting at a flashing yellow, you must stay behind the line until a clear opportunity to turn presents itself by a break in oncoming traffic, and you will not be allowed to complete a turn when the light turns yellow and oncoming traffic stops. You must stay stopped at the intersection and wait for your next legal opportunity to turn. If you try pulling into the intersection on a flashing yellow turn light, you can get a traffic citation.

There is no free lunch, and the flashing yellow turn light is likely to increase risk to drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians, even as it provides convenience to other drivers.

Be extra watchful when you come across one.

GPS in danger?

Occasionally the U. S. military comes up with an idea so good they can't keep it to themselves, and it sweeps the world. One of those was called the Arpanet. Today we know it as the Internet.

Another one of those was the Global Positioning System - which today we know as GPS. You may find your way while driving, using a GPS in your car; your cellular phone probably is able to tell emergency responders where you are, if needed, using GPS built into your phone. If you fly, your pilot is getting critical location information from GPS.

GPS uses a network of satellites ringing the earth, and uses signals from several of these satellites, and some mathematics, to pinpoint where you are. It's a convenience that has rapidly become a necessity.

Thus it is cause for concern that a company called 'LightSquared' has gotten tentative permission from the Federal Communications Commission to use frequencies very near the GPS frequencies for a broadband wireless Internet service.

Turns out, the LightSquared service interferes with GPS. LightSquared continues to bob and weave, insisting it can fix a problem the Defense Department and GPS industry says it cannot fix, while pressing the FCC for a license and merrily wholesaling access to its future 'network' to other companies.

The Defense Department is upset, Congress is upset, and if and when LightSquared gets an OK to use its new 'network' you, too, may be upset.

With all these folks upset, there is a fair chance LightSquared will be blocked from proceeding with this plan - which uses satellite frequencies for a land-based service - but it's one to watch, because it could affect you and your safety if they proceed.

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