The McKinney/Olive Intersection Is Dangerous Right Now

Ambiguity makes conditions dangerous for drivers.

There’s a fascinating and dangerous (and accidental) experiment going on at the intersection of McKinney Avenue and Olive Street. I was alerted to the issue by C. Troy Mathis on Twitter. Within five minutes of arriving on the scene, I witnessed a wreck.

Apparently, power was cut on the block, and the traffic signals at this intersection, as well as at Olive and Woodall Rodgers, failed.  The Olive/Woodall signal is operating as it is supposed to, as blinking reds in both one-way directions. However, the Olive/McKinney intersection signal is frozen. On Olive, which is one-way northbound, it is a solid red. McKinney, which is two-way, is solid yellow in both directions. Troy mentioned that he called the cops only to hear that somebody would respond within 24 hours.

This makes for an unsafe situation because it is ambiguous.  If it was a typical blinking red, you probably know (if you have a valid driver’s license) that a blinking red operates like a four-way stop sign. There is an implicit communication happening between all drivers that you trust that they also know how to behave. And if they don’t, then at least they can quickly learn to adapt to how everyone else is behaving. If all else fails, in such a situation drivers tend to try to make eye contact with other drivers to ensure their safe passage through the intersection. Order tends to form out of what might seem like a chaotic condition. When signals fail, often intersections get safer (particularly with smaller intersecting roads — two converging big roads with lots of left turns can create too many potential conflicts to sort out in an orderly fashion).

However, this is not what is  happening at McKinney and Olive. I have never seen lights frozen. Some drivers are operating like it is a blinking red. Others, approaching a solid red, just assume it’s business as usual and that they’re supposed to stop. I witnessed a bus sit for about three minutes until realizing something was up. If approaching a yellow, some drivers may not know it’s a frozen yellow and will cruise right through the intersection.  You can see how this could create a problem. Nobody knows how others are going to behave.

This kind of ambiguity can create for safe streets, if it is understood that there is ambiguity, and if the streets are narrow and designed for many pedestrian and bike conflicts, like the theories of Hans Monderman about shared spaces. If cars are moving slow enough, and the street is designed specifically for slow travel speeds, then drivers will be hyper-aware of their surroundings and drive slowly enough to reduce risk to themselves and others.

The wreck occurred because the driver heading southbound on McKinney saw that he had a yellow light and cruised through the intersection. He did so at the same time a driver turning left from Olive to McKinney assumed, like most of the other drivers, that everyone should behave like it is a blinking red (even if there was no blinking). I was looking down at the time because Troy was caddy-corner on the other side of the intersection, and we communicated via Twitter. Then, CRACK.

I looked up to see two cars stop one behind the other and two men get out of the cars yelling at each other. “What the F are you doing? I had a yellow light!”  “It was a blinking red.” “It ain’t F’ing blinking!” “You got insurance?” “Yeah, I got F’ing insurance.”

At this point, I thought they might fight.  I also thought I was going to have to provide witness to the cops. I started scoping the damage to each car while wondering who was exactly at fault here. In a way, they were both right. The driver with the yellow behaved like normal. He thought he could cruise through the intersection (apparently without caution, though). The other driver behaved like many of the other drivers assumed was the case, that the signals had failed and for the intersection to function at all, you had to behave like it was a blinking red even though there was no blinkety blink.

However, none of that mattered as the F-bomb dropper went back to his car to get his insurance, but instead did no such thing. Instead he peeled out and sped off.  He managed to make it exactly one block when the light at McKinney and Harwood turned from yellow to red on him, and he had to screech to a halt. Whereupon he then decided his best course of action was to turn right on red to continue his getaway. I hope Driver No. 2 got the license plate, which I couldn’t make out. He then drove off and like that everyone was gone.

The signal is still there with one frozen yellow, one frozen red, and lots of ambiguity.  And not the good kind.  I hope there are no more wrecks in the next 24 hours.