Making the Illegal Safe?

My interest was piqued by something I learned at a recent Planning and Sustainability Commission meeting.

We were being briefed on the Outer Powell Safety Project by ODOT. This $6M project will address some issues in the high-crash corridor from SE 111th to SE 174th. BikePortland has a nice write-up as well.

One element caught my attention. There will be loop detectors at the intersections (not a surprise). But they will be used in a way I’m not familiar with. If they detect a vehicle traveling at a high rate of speed as the light is about to change, the green for drivers in the other direction will be delayed to avoid having a T-bone crash occur.

I like the safety improvement, but wondered if we aren’t risking reinforcing unsafe behavior. It turns out that the driver pushing the red light still experiences the light turning red at the same time, so the “oh s**t!” moment will still occur. It just won’t be followed by a crash.

There is a also a tool to make enforcement easier. The back side of the signals have an indicator so that a law enforcement officer on the other side of the intersection can tell when the light turns red, so a ticket can be issued based on observations from either side of the intersection.


Loops will detect cars about to run a red light and delay the opposing green light.


And indicator on the back of signal heads showing law enforcement when the light is red on the other side.

Of course, the other question that occurred to me is whether this type of safety tool should be coupled with a red light camera to improvement enforcement. That turns out to be a complicated question. State law only authorizes cities, not ODOT, to do camera based enforcement. And the City of Portland has a prioritization process for these that would be independent of ODOT’s choice to improve this stretch of Powell. So a camera could show up here in the future, but it would not be coordinated with this project.

[Disclaimer – I want to be careful not to appear to be advocating for additional red light cameras, since my employer, Xerox Corporation, is the supplier to the City of Portland, and if were I in a decision making role for this, I would have an actual conflict of interest under state law. Readers may reach their own conclusions about my views about the cameras.]

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