Queenie May Carlton died in a traffic accident at the intersection of Rtes. 50 and 28 in Fairfax County last week.
The driver of the Carlton car, Mrs. Carlton's daughter, had waited through three light cycles for a signal to proceed with her left turn. When the signal failed to appear, Ms. Carlton did what thousands of motorists do at "stuck" traffic lights every day; she tried to pick a safe moment to proceed. A collision resulted. Mrs. Carlton died.
Last week's traffic accident is seldom regarded as news because more than 100 Americans lose their lives in auto smashups every day of the year. There are so many fatalities that we have come to regard them as inevitable - a natural phenomenon to be accepted philosophy and with resignation, like rain on Sunday.
Apart from friemds and relatives, the only people who seem to care about traffic fatalities are policemen, highway engineers and safety experts who work for insurance companies. They sift through the evidence in selected cases to try to understand precisely what happened. They want to learn how to avoid future accidents. For most reporters, however, there's not much pizzazz in a story about a week-old traffic accident.
Fortunately for The Washington Post, it now has a summer intern named Sandra Boodman working in Fairfax County. Apparently Sandra hasn't been with us long enocuh to know that traffic fatalities are "routine."
Sandra wanted to know why the traffic lights didn't change just before Mrs. Carlton's death, so she began looking into the case. The result of her investigation appeared in Tuesday's Washington Post.
Among other things, Sandra learned that motorists have been complaining about the traffic signals at that intersection for several months. Complainants had reported to policemen and to insurance adjusters that sometimes the lights would suddenly switch from green to red without a yellow light-to warn of impending change.
Even worse, the lights sometimes showed green in all four directions simultaneously. Naturally, many accidents and near-accidents resulted.
When Sandra talked to the resident engineer for the Virginia Department of Highways, he told her that the lights at that intersection are equipped with a "fail-safe mechanism" designed to change a four-way-green malfunction to flashing red lights. In other words, the light is so designed that it can't show green in both directions - yet complaints are on file saying that on several occasions it did.
The state's traffic supervisor told Sandra that his people have monitored the light for hours without seeing any evidence of malfunction. "If we find anything wrong, we'll replace it," he told her.
All of which raises some questions in my mind.
Are accident records and complaints about malfunctions not enough in themselves to warrant the installation of a new control mechanism? Does replacement really have to be delayed until a highway department employee personally witnesses a malfunction or a fatality? Why do so many traffic signals malfunction in the first place? We put more delicate and more complicated intruments on the moon and depend on them to operate perfectly for indefinite periods of time. Why is it that every morning newscasters and traffic reporters in helicopters must warn us about so many malfunctioning traffic lights?
We're not dealing here with the mere inconvenience of "stuck" lights that tie up traffic, mind you. We're talking about lights that cause people to suffer injury, and sometimes death.
Is this really the best we can do with a relatively simple device like a traffic signal? I doubt it.
I think that if we'd stop accepting traffic deaths as "routine" and "inevitable" and began raising some hell about avoidable traffic hazards, we could save a lot of lives. Possibly yours or mine.