COLUMBIA — The behavior of two drivers was on trial in a recent personal injury lawsuit stemming from a 2005 accident involving a bicyclist. But the safety of a Columbia intersection was on trial as well.
In addition to the drivers, the bicyclist sued the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission because it maintains the intersection at College and Rollins avenues where the accident occurred. The bicyclist argued that had the traffic signal included an “all-red clearance,” the accident might have been avoided.
An all-red clearance is a brief delay in a traffic signal sequence where all four lights at an intersection turn red for a few seconds. The goal of the all-red delay is to safely clear the intersection, especially of pedestrians and bicyclists. In the lawsuit, the bicyclist, who lost a leg and suffered other serious injuries, claimed she didn’t have enough time to get off the street after the light changed.
Though the verdict found the transportation commission had no fault in the accident, Columbia Mayor Darwin Hindman took notice of the case. On Nov 3., he proposed a plan to the City Council that would add an all-red delay to all of Columbia’s traffic signals.
Hindman, an avid cyclist, has been fighting to improve Columbia’s streets and intersections throughout his tenure in office. His daughter was injured while riding her bike at the intersection of Providence and Stewart roads in 2003. Though Nov. 3 was not the first time he has proposed such a plan for all-red delays, the personal injury lawsuit put the issue back in the spotlight.
“I have proposed it before, but it kind of gets lost,” he said. “The lawsuit raises the awareness of the issue by having a case where it was argued that somebody might not have been hurt had you had the delay.”
While pedestrian countdown displays have been added to many intersections in Columbia, MoDOT took down the displays at the intersection of College and Rollins in the fall of 2006 — a year after the accident. Although there is a pedestrian walkway over College between Ashland and Rollins, the intersection is still busy on work days.
Brandon Campbell, an intermediate traffic studies specialist with MoDOT, said the countdown displays were removed because of timing changes made to the signal that reduced time for pedestrians and increased time for traffic. He said MoDOT periodically adjusts the timing of its signals to meet the demands of traffic, and that it was deemed north and southbound traffic would be better served with a few more seconds of “green time.”
MoDOT also determined that pedestrians had more time than they needed to cross the intersection.
“We felt that the way we made the change and programmed the signal necessitated the removal of the countdown displays,” Campbell said. “Since we took them down we haven’t observed pedestrians having additional difficulties or heard any concerns from the public about the pedestrian signals.”
Hindman said that he thinks bringing back the countdown displays "ought to be looked into," and added that he is a "firm believer in countdown timers."
He considers the installation of countdown displays over the years a victory in the effort to improve the safety of Columbia’s intersections.
“We’ve made some big progress … we’ve put countdown timers on a lot of our intersections,” Hindman said, “and that is something I asked for and am very proud of.”
But he wants more. He said adding a delay to Columbia’s traffic signals would be a cost- and time-effective way to improve the safety of intersections without having to completely redesign them. He also believes that the plan would encourage citizens to leave their cars at home and walk or ride their bicycles more.
“The idea of laying out an interconnected system of transportation that gives you the opportunity to use your bicycle or walk makes a huge amount of sense, but one of the great barriers is the intersections,” Hindman said. “You get these intersections that are designed to get the automobiles through them fast, but they don’t give much consideration to bicyclists.”
Hindman said the main objection to such a plan has been that it would delay traffic. There was no resistance from the City Council on Nov. 3 to the idea of Columbia Public Works compiling an impact report on the plan, which is the next step for such a proposal.
Scott Bitterman, the supervising engineer in traffic for Public Works, said the report has not been assigned yet. When it is, consulting MoDOT would be the first step because MoDOT runs about 80 of Columbia's 120 traffic signals, he said.
Bitterman said adding a delay is as simple as changing the time on a computer. It's more of a policy issue than a cost issue, he said.
Campbell, the MoDOT intermediate traffic studies specialist, said MoDOT likes to keeps its traffic signals consistent across the entire state “so drivers know what to expect from one intersection to another.” And most of MoDOT’s signals do not have the delay.
The decision to use the all-red delay at a particular intersection is based on several factors, he said.
“What we do is measure the intersection and take into account the speeds, and we use an equation that has different factors it takes into account," he said. "Really what changes the clearance time from intersection to intersection is mostly dependent on the speeds of the cars and size of the intersection.”
He listed the intersections at Stadium Boulevard and Providence Road, and Clark Lane and Highway 63 connector as MoDOT-maintained intersections in Columbia that have an all-red delay programmed into their signals.
However, MoDOT’s policy on the state-wide consistency could pose a problem to the mayor’s plan.
“To change our signals only in Columbia would place those signals out of compliance with that policy,” Campbell said. “Before MoDOT would do that, we would need a compelling reason to rethink the way they are currently timed.”
He also said that MoDOT would, “gladly work with the city to discuss how they time their traffic signals and to get ideas about how they would like to see MoDOT’s signals improved.”
The mayor thinks the plan would have a universally positive effect on Columbia’s streets.
“Bicycles are the most efficient form of human movement there is,” he said. “It doesn’t pollute, it gives you exercise, it relieves congestions and it is cheap. I think the bicycles, the pedestrians and cars will be better off if you have that four-way delay.”