State debuts New Year with new teeth in traffic laws

When your editor moved to the City of Roses, a third of a century ago, from our neighboring state to the south, he beheld something he had seldom seen in California: Pedestrians, downtown, routinely crossing the street against red traffic lights. The reason he had not seen it there is that pedestrians can get killed doing that.

For some reason, Portland pedestrians then - and certainly now - seem to have no difficulty rationalizing the breaking of this law, which is citable as 'failure to obey a traffic control device'. One popular rationalization is 'well, nobody was coming'. Another is 'I'm a pedestrian, and it doesn't apply to me'.

The correct response to the first objection is: 'It doesn't matter; the law requires obeying the light'. What would happen if MOTORISTS started ignoring traffic lights because 'nobody was coming'? (In fact, alas, we have occasionally seen them doing just that.)

The correct response to the second objection is: 'The traffic lights apply equally to all travelers, whether on foot, on bike, or in vehicle! They are mandatory, not just advisory'.

If the City were to need quick money, all they'd have to do is post officers with ticket pads at intersections controlled by lights, and write up the pedestrians who disobey the traffic lights.

These infractions are still found largely on the narrower downtown streets; elsewhere the streets are broad enough that the hazard seems obvious, but we do regularly hear of pedestrians run down and killed for trying to cross against the light even on such broad streets as McLoughlin Boulevard and Powell.

However, those same officers with ticket pads would still make the City money at Southeast's light-controlled intersections, because all too often it's bicyclists who are running the lights - and failing to stop at stop signs, too. The rationalization often seems to be: 'Hey, if I stop, I have to put my foot down or I will fall over, so I must keep going'. Or, too, 'I'm a bicyclist, and it doesn't apply to me'. (Anyone who thinks that should not be riding a bicycle.)

In Portland, lately we've been running down too many bicyclists. But, some bicyclists engage in extremely dangerous behavior and fail to follow the traffic rules. In some cases those run down are from the latter group.

Indeed, in 1975 upon our arrival here, it was mainly pedestrians who ignored traffic laws. Later, bicyclists as they proliferated contributed their own cadre to the law-ignorers, and navigating in traffic became more hazardous for everyone.

But it was not till the mid-1990's that we began to see, here, something we had only previously seen in New York City on a visit there in the '70's: Motorists who consider traffic lights as only advisory, and yellow lights being interpreted as 'floor it' rather than 'stop unless you are already in the intersection'. (Guess which of those two options is the legal one?)

We vividly recall being stopped at a red light in Hillsdale, within the last ten years, when a motorist came up rapidly behind us, swerved to the shoulder at right and zoomed around us and THROUGH the red light. (It was not changing red; it had been red for some time.) Till then we had not thought that would ever happen. Now at least we are alert to the possibility, not that reacting when stopped is much of an option.

Today, the wise motorist waits till after the light turns green, then looks both ways before starting up, because some jerk may still be trying to gun it through the intersection on an already-red light.

Hooray for the new state law which, effective January 1, removes previous limits and allows installing an unlimited number of red light cameras in any city in the state. If people will not follow the directives of a 'traffic control device', then we need more devices to catch them and nail them with a very expensive ticket for doing so.

If you are looking for a New Year's resolution to make at this late date in 2008, why not start with a resolution to obey all traffic lights and stop signs, regardless of whether you are on foot, on a bicycle, or in a vehicle?

And please don't forget: The yellow light means STOP, unless you are already in the intersection when it changes from green. It does NOT mean 'gun it and maybe you'll make it into the intersection before the light turns red'.