Sunday, February 26, 2017

Green Means Stop? Legislature Near Passage of "Blocking The Box" Bill

The Maryland Legislature is near passage of a bill with the claimed purpose of combating "blocking the box" by making is a crime to enter an intersection on a green or yellow light if the vehicle cannot "safely and completely" clear the intersection before a light turns red, according to an article on WTOP.

The bill has been submitted as House Bill-0237 and Senate Bill-0779.  The bill has already passed the House of Delegates and is pending a vote in the state Senate.  The legislation is "a monument change in the right of way at intersections", according to supporters of the bill, requiring motorist to stop on green or yellow lights if they cannot be 100% certain of clearing the intersection before the light turns red.

If HB237/SB0779 passes, it would prohibit a vehicle at a green signal, green arrow signal, or steady yellow signal from entering an intersection "if the vehicle is unable to safely and completely proceed through the intersection".  The vehicle would thus be required to stop on a green light if it was uncertain whether it could "completely" clear the intersection.  Violation of this statute  would be a misdemeanor offense with a $500 fine.  Current Maryland law simply permits motorists to enter an intersection on a green light, and also permits entry into intersections on yellow lights because cars cannot stop instantaneously.  In many cases it is physically impossible for all vehicle to either clear an intersection or stop when a light turns yellow, which is why traffic standards create what is called an "all red' clearance interval, where nobody has the green light, after a light turns red.

The house version of the bill makes an exception for cases where "A vehicle making a left turn can enter an intersection while yielding the right of way to any other vehicle approaching from the opposite direction, and a vehicle making a right turn can enter the intersection while yielding the right of way to a pedestrian or bicyclist."  However  it does not make any exception for cases when the vehicle in front of you stops and you are forced to stop rather than "completely" clear the intersection in order to prevent a collision.  The legislation also makes no exception for not stopping on a green light for the purpose of avoiding being rear ended by motorists who expect vehicles to continue moving when a light is green.   The bill does not state how long motorists have to "completely" clear the intersection or whether this means "by the time the light turns red" or "eventually".  If strictly interpreted, motorists would either need to be able to predict the future, or else would need to wait until the car in front of them completely clears an intersection, in order to be 100% sure they can clear an intersection.

The legislation is being supported by the WABA (The Washington Area Bike Association) which has in the past pushed for various legislation which increases liability for motorists.  It is unclear how the liability issue would be affected by this legislation in a case where a cyclist runs a red light at the same time a motorist with a green light begins to enter the intersection.

The legislation does not explicitly state that it would authorize red light camera citations to be issued for such violations, but neither does it explicitly state that it would not.  In the past the District of Columbia has proposed introducing "blocking the box" cameras, which would enforce similar violations there, and this issue is frequently raised as a goal of that city.  In Maryland, the legislature never explicitly stated that red light cameras would be used to ticket for making slow moving right turns on red, or coming to a full stop slightly ahead of the white line, but some jurisdictions simply began doing so after concluded they could enforce those tickets, and now both of those practices have become increasingly common, in some cases accounting for far more than the number of straight through violations.

The legislation could be construed as changing this, making it a violation to enter an intersection on
The house sponsor of the bill, Delegate Al Carr (who is possibly the most anti-motorist lawmaker in the House of Delegates), also sponsored legislation this year that would have created a new photo ticketing system called "Vehicle Presence Monitoring Systems", which was withdrawn after an unfavorable public reaction.  The legislation is also being supported by the head of Montgomery County's speed and red light camera program, Captain Tom Didone.

Captain Didone, who runs the largest photo enforcement program in the state, said he wants to discourage the behavior of cars rushing into an intersection on a yellow light to avoid waiting another light cycle. “(It will be) a monument change of the right of way for light intersections,” Didone said.  Thus it apparently is in fact the deliberate intention of this legislation to shift liability to motorists with a green/yellow light AND to make it a violation for not stopping for YELLOW unless you can be CERTAIN the light won't change red (which might be physically impossible for a motorist to guarantee).

The bill also does not explicitly require that local governments do their part to avoid "blocking the box" conflicts by ensuring that "all red clearance intervals" be set according to standards.  Many motorists are unaware that traffic engineers are supposed to set an "all red" phase after a light changes from yellow to red, in order to permit adequate time for all vehicles to safely clear the intersection.

A recent investigation by the Maryland Drivers Alliance discovered that Montgomery County had not been following SHA standards for the timing of yellow lights and red clearance intervals at some intersections, producing yellow lights and red clearance intervals shorter than the formulas specified by the SHA.  In the case of Georgia Avenue at Seminary Road, one yellow light had only a 3 second yellow time and a 1 second all clearance red before a complaint was made by the Maryland Drivers Alliance about this noncompliance.  SHA standards called for a 4 second yellow on a 35mph road, and red clearance intervals of longer than 1 second would be required based on the width of an intersection of that type.  Even after the light was re-timed, it is not apparent that the methodology specified by the SHA is actually being used by Montgomery County on this state highway.  Given that we only investigated traffic signal timing at a limited number of locations with red light cameras, it is likely there are many other traffic signals where red light cameras are not currently placed where SHA practices are not being used by the county.

We found it particularly interesting that according to a report on WTOP, one of the bill sponsors and the head of Montgomery County's speed camera program spoke of intersections which had problems: "Both Carr and Capt. Thomas Didone, director of the traffic division of the Montgomery County police, pointed out a handful of intersections in Montgomery County where blocking the box affects the flow of traffic, including Georgia Avenue and Seminary Road; "   The Maryland Drivers Alliance does NOT consider this to be a coincidence that this specific intersection was named out of 600+ traffic signals in the county, at, as officials in Montgomery County are well aware that there has been a dispute over the timing of traffic signals at Georgia Avenue at Seminary road and other locations.  The Maryland Drivers Alliance suspects that Montgomery County and other jurisdictions may be seeking a way to to transfer the county's potential liability for failing to properly time lights onto motorists as a way of justifying non-compliance with SHA standards.  The Maryland Department of Transportation had not weighted in on the legislation at the time of the WTOP article.

The bill was already rushed through the House and is near passage in the Senate.  The Judicial Proceedings Committee has already heard this legislation, but can still be contacted.  The members of the Judicial Proceedings Committee are:

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