Friday, December 05, 2008

Three Lousy Intersections

It's Friday afternoon, and time now to discuss traffic patterns. A great deal of ink (and blood, too, I expect) has been spilled on this Internet and elsewhere over the quality of driving in the Boston area. I don't mean to deny or gainsay any of it with this post. Boston drivers are freakish psychopaths. As friendly as they may be in other contexts (he writes, rolling his eyes), when they get into their cars, they become awful, terrible people. It's a fact. But the state and local traffic authorities don't exactly make life easy for them.

Take these examples:


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The two intersections depicted above are both classic "T"-style intersections. One road runs perpendicular to another and ends. In the case of intersection (1) (Centre Street, Newton), the northbound driver on Centre Street must turn right into eastbound traffic. Intersection (2) (Park Road and South Avenue, Waltham) presents the northbound driver with two options: he/she may turn left or right onto Route 30 — into eastbound or westbound traffic as he/she chooses.

What's worth noting about these intersections is that in both cases, the driver who turns right is likely to get killed. Here's why: at both intersections, a green-arrow traffic signal exhorts the driver to turn right, even though the same signal does not stop the eastbound traffic. In most modern states, a green arrow entitles a driver to turn his/her vehicle in the arrow's direction — and what is more, the driver is entitled to rely on the signal to stop the traffic on the turned-upon road. Indeed, many (I dare not say all) of the green-arrow signals deployed elsewhere in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts operate in this fashion. Not so at these intersections. And so, if you don't know this, you'll probably be killed. Bummer for you.

Hey Commonwealth — hey Newton and Waltham — how about we sub out these mischief-making green arrows for stop signs or red blinking lights?


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Intersection (3) (Concord Avenue and Common Street, Belmont) doesn't affirmatively mislead drivers into crippling accidents; here the government provides no guidance at all, right or wrong. There is no traffic signal, no stop sign, no policeman on duty — nothing — to establish a right of way here. What is more, the three roads that converge here meet at something close to identical 120-degree angles, so one cannot draw any inferences as to whether one of these "turns" might be regarded as no turn at all, such that a driver might conclude that by going "straight" he/she has the right of way. The closest thing to a pronouncement on this subject comes from Google Maps, which shows that drivers who approach the intersection from the east and north are on Concord Avenue, and they'll stay on Concord if they turn north and east, respectively. In theory, then, maybe drivers who would turn onto or off of Common Street would have to yield.

Anyone who has ever driven to this intersection knows that this is not how matters play out. There are no street signs that would give notice of the regime I seek to superimpose on this chaos. Drivers on all three roads stop short, pull up, eye one another warily, creep up, honk, glare, proceed, flip one another off. Somehow, some way, we get through it, but not without suffering great agitation and outrage.

Probably the most severe irony is the fact that drivers who make it through the intersection and proceed westbound on Common are immediately treated to a giant, portable LCD screen planted squarely at the Common/Royal fork by town authorities to exhort people, on pain of traffic ticket, to fasten their seatbelts. The Town of Belmont apparently regards the area as appropriate for banal public-safety messaging, but not for traffic guidance. Pfft.

It might be that the railway bridge over intersection (3) precludes the use of traffic signals there. Still, a stop sign stuck in the ground on Common, along with in-ground, side-of-road yellow flashing lights to confront drivers approaching west- and north-bound on Concord could settle the issue once and for all. How frickin' hard would that be to implement?

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