Flashing lights fluster local drivers

Brett Berntsen

FARMINGTON — As the city looks to remove three traffic lights along Main Street through downtown, the phase-out procedure has drawn criticism for creating confusion among local drivers.

Motorists venture across Main Street at Allen Avenue on Friday in Farmington, one of three downtown intersections where the traffic lights are due to be removed.

“Most comments have been about the flash mode,” Public Works Director David Sypher said.

The signals at the intersections of Locke, Allen and Court avenues have been blinking yellow since May, after the Farmington City Council voted to remove the lights because they were deemed unnecessary. To introduce drivers to the changes, the lights were set to flash yellow along Main Street and red on the side streets for a 90-day test period. But while the removal was designed to ease the flow of traffic downtown, the transitional step has created some unforeseen confusion.

“Some people don’t seem to recognize what the flashing yellows and the flashing reds mean,” Sypher said.

This misunderstanding prompted the Farmington Police Department to post instructions on its Facebook page this week describing how to navigate the signals. Spokeswoman Georgette Allen said the department has not received reports of serious problems or accidents at the intersections, but officers have heard enough grumblings on the street to warrant the outreach effort.

“We want to make sure and address everybody's concerns,” Allen said. “It can be kind of scary for people because they wonder, ‘Does everyone else know what to do?’”

Kat Clemons, who navigates the signals on her daily commute to work at Thunderbird Tax service, said cars will often stop or hesitate at the yellow lights, unsure of how to proceed.

Red flags at the intersection of Main Street and Allen Avenue in downtown Farmington warn motorists that the intersection now has stop signs on Allen Avenue.

“People don’t seem to know what to do," Clemons said. “(The city) needs to put out some instructions or something."

A Daily Times reporter on Thursday observed two vehicles within 20 minutes come to a stop in front of the flashing yellow lights located at the intersection of Main Street and Allen Avenue. Traffic laws stipulate that drivers should proceed with caution through a flashing yellow light and treat blinking red lights like a stop sign. Such lessons are included in basic instructional training, but the emphasis can vary.

“The driver education curriculum does cover signage, signals and intersection navigation as part of the comprehensive training,” Emilee Cantrell, a spokesperson with the New Mexico Department of Transportation, said in an email. “But we do not know specifically if instructors choose to cover scenarios involving blinking traffic lights.”

While the confusion has persisted most of the summer, it will likely come to an end as the study period wraps up later this month. Sypher said city traffic engineers will assess the way traffic has flowed during the trial and decide whether to remove the lights, which could save $12,000 a year in maintenance and upkeep costs per intersection.

The project comes as part of a larger vision to revamp downtown. Additional proposals include the construction of several roundabouts — an idea that has drawn mixed reactions from the public.

A driver stops momentarily on Friday on Main Street at Allen Avenue where the traffic signal was recently altered to display a flashing yellow light.

Clemons said roundabouts could prove beneficial by slowing down traffic, but whether they would improve flow remains to be seen.

“People probably wouldn’t know how to use them, either,” she said.

Brett Berntsen covers government for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4606.