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A Signal Achievement in Fullerton and Pasadena

Experimental flashing left-turn arrows may cut idling time, if enough drivers grasp the system.

February 25, 2005|Rong-Gong Lin II | Times Staff Writer

Ed Hart often finds himself sitting in a left-turn lane staring angrily at the red light. Even though no cars are coming toward him in the other lane, the red arrow stays on and on -- seemingly for an eternity.

"At night, you're wondering why the light stays red," said Hart, who lives in Fullerton. "I've seen other people turn when no cars are coming" despite the red arrow.

Traffic engineers have an idea to speed things up. On Thursday, Fullerton became the first city in California to unveil an experimental traffic light that officials believe could shrink wait times in left-turn lanes and reduce accidents.

Pasadena plans to install several lights in a few months.

The new signal at Chapman and Commonwealth avenues near Cal State Fullerton flashes a yellow arrow in the left-turn lane, allowing motorists to proceed if they find a safe gap in oncoming traffic. In the coming weeks, workers will install the lights at two other intersections.

The lights, which cost $15,000 to $25,000 per intersection, should be up by fall on Arroyo Parkway in Pasadena, near the MTA Gold Line.

The three-year experiment in the two cities is being closely watched by the Federal Highway Administration, which is studying whether the lights should be approved for use nationwide. In particular, the agency wants to see if the signals affect left-turn collision rates.

With money for major road improvements scarce, officials see the left-turn lights as a relatively inexpensive way to improve traffic flow -- but only if these experiments find that the lights don't confuse motorists and cause more accidents.

Traffic engineers believe the lights are most likely to catch on in newer suburban communities, where drivers are already accustomed to the red-yellow-green left-turn signals.

These are also the areas where motorists most complain about being stuck at red left-arrow lights when there is no oncoming traffic.

Los Angeles, on the other hand, is unlikely to embrace the new lights because streets are generally narrower than in the suburbs, and the vast majority of traffic signals don't include left-turn lights, said John Fisher, assistant general manager for the city's Department of Transportation.

Fisher also questioned whether the lights would work at some of the city's busiest intersections, where gridlock is sometimes so severe that there is never a gap in oncoming traffic that would allow motorists to make their left turns.

A seven-year study commissioned by the federal Transportation Research Board found that motorists quickly understood what the flashing yellow arrow meant: A driver may turn after yielding.

That study, conducted in six locations in Maryland, Florida, Arizona and Oregon, found that traffic engineers and motorists supported the signal. It was so successful that some cities, including Beaverton, Ore., added the signal to more intersections.

The lights improve bottlenecks at intersections that allow turns only on a green arrow. They're also safer: Some drivers forget to yield when confronted with a green light over a left-turn lane.

But the new lights got off to a rocky start in Tucson when a driver turned left without yielding in 2001, a week after the new signal was installed. Although the resulting accident was not directly linked to the new light, Tucson's city manager removed the signals until public service announcements could be aired.

Since then, drivers "seemed to catch on pretty quickly," said Richard Nassi, a city transportation official. In fact, there has been a 10% to 15% reduction in collisions at the three intersections where the flashing yellow left-turn lights are used.

In Pasadena, officials hope the signals will shorten wait times on roads approaching the Gold Line, which back up whenever a train passes.

The flashing yellow arrows would allow westbound motorists on three Pasadena streets to make left turns onto Arroyo Parkway -- which is parallel to the tracks -- while the train passes, said Bahman Janka, a city transportation official.

The change could potentially shave at least two minutes off motorists' wait times during rush hour on Glenarm Street and California and Del Mar boulevards, Janka said.

In Fullerton, traffic engineer Mark Miller flipped on the new lights at 3 p.m. He then got into his car and began making left turns at the intersection, trying to show passing motorists how to use the new signals.

At hour later, Miller said, he was convinced people were catching on.

"They are intuitively figuring it out," he said. "It dawns on them what's happening."

Miller proudly recounted the story of one driver who found himself momentarily confused as he approached the flashing yellow arrow. "I saw him move his hands like 'What is this?' Then he got into the intersection and went."

Still, Fullerton police plan to conduct extra patrols around the test intersections, just in case.

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