Drivers process a lot of information while piloting their vehicles.
Road conditions. Signals. Distance in front, to the sides and behind. Speed. Room to change lanes. Traffic ahead. And signs, signs, signs.
Major roads are a barrage of symbols and words cluing people to what’s coming.
Sometimes, that can confuse drivers even when the signs are made and positioned according to standards and statutes.
That could be the case for at least one driver at a busy intersection of Highway 99 at 168th Street Southwest in Lynnwood. It’s almost at the northern city limits near Keeler’s Corner where 34,000 vehicles used the highway every day in 2019, according to Washington State Department of Transportation data.
“This intersection has bothered me for several years, but last week I saw yet another car make a left turn mistake, so I am writing you,” Gary Noble of Lynnwood wrote in an email to The Herald.
His concern was for eastbound drivers on 168th Street Southwest. As they approach the highway intersection, drivers have three lanes: left turn, straight, and a straight or right turn. Noble said the problem is the signs and lights across the intersection.
As drivers going east on 168th Street Southwest pass through the intersection and under the traffic signal and signs, vehicles in the straight lane go directly under the left-turn only sign.
“This confused me one rainy night several years ago, and since then I have seen many instances of cars in the center lane hesitating and suddenly turning left instead of continuing straight,” Noble wrote. “This could be easily remedied by replacing the single large left-turn arrow sign with the standard three lane designation sign (left arrow, forward arrow, forward/right arrow).”
I drove through the intersection recently to see what Noble described. As I approached the intersection from 48th Avenue West, the signage marking the lanes’ directions seemed clear enough and led me to the center through-lane. But as I crossed the intersection, sure enough that left-turn sign went right over my car.
As odd as that design may seem, it’s all up to code, City of Lynnwood traffic engineer Paul Coffelt said.
“It is perfectly standard,” he said. “The sign and the signal head are positioned very appropriately.”
This year, there have been five collisions at that intersection, according to WSDOT crash report data. Of those, only one collision reportedly was related to signage, and it was the driver’s fault for allegedly ignoring the signals and signs.
That’s indicative of the data Coffelt regularly reviews for his job, which he has held since 2009. Travel patterns, including crashes, can flag problems on roads. Not to disparage the good people driving in and through Lynnwood, and certainly not Noble, but the citywide numbers tell Coffelt that human error could be the problem more than any engineered feature.
“On our streets, there is a fairly consistent percentage of drivers who cannot correctly judge distance, time and speed,” Coffelt said.
He hasn’t found anything in the traffic safety data for this particular intersection or, at least, not related to improper left turns or confusion about lane designations.
“I tried real hard to find even a single collision that I could point back to of a driver being confused about being the straight lane or the left turn lane,” said Coffelt, who also checked with the traffic unit in the Lynnwood Police Department for their anecdotal information about 168th and Highway 99. It wasn’t on their radar.
Information bombards drivers as they approach that intersection. There are overhead signs along the roadside, markings on the street itself about which lanes are turn lanes and lines to denote what kind of lane it is.
“People don’t see signs,” Coffelt said. “Signs disappear, you see hundreds or dozens of them, then eventually they kind of disappear or fade into the background.”
The city could install more signs west of the intersection. An advanced lane use sign, white with black letters, at least 300 feet before the stop lines, is one option. But if there are issues at an intersection, Coffelt said the priorities are to check that the pavement markings are intact and the paint is bright.
On the east side of the intersection, the driveway into the commercial strip with a Starbucks has been the site of several crashes. Coffelt and the city’s public works employees haven’t found an engineering solution yet.
“There’s a lot of processing that should be going on in drivers’ minds,” Coffelt said.
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