Abandon all hope at hellish Post Road East traffic light tangle
“Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here” — Durante Alighieri
I confess, I never got all the way through “Dante’s Inferno,” but what I did learn from the allegorical poem leads me to the conclusion that the intersection of Post Road East and the parking lot entrances/exits of Compo Shopping Center (CVS) and Compo Acres Shopping Center (Trader Joe’s) is the earthly manifestation of either the Seventh or Ninth Circle of Hell. It just depends on where you rank the Norwalk DMV.
I have struggled for quite some time to try to figure out whether this municipal train wreck is the product of some traffic engineer’s gross miscalculation or merely a paranormal phenomenon that prevents otherwise rational people from behaving as such. I still haven’t figured it out, though I am leaning more and more toward the paranormal phenomenon.
Trying to list all the problems with this busy stretch of one of Westport’s main commercial arteries would easily fill up a multi-volume treatise. The combination of a traffic-signaled intersection that looks like the parking lot at Met Life Stadium after a playoff game, and two undersized strip mall parking lots on either side of the road (“Gee, I’m sure adding a Chipotle restaurant couldn’t possibly make this intersection any worse.”) is just too much to tackle in a single column.
Accordingly, I will address this week only the intersection’s notorious westbound “traffic barricade.” It’s still a bit lengthy, so please bear with me.
Problem: For reasons still unexplained by scientists, westbound drivers appear to lose all sense of depth perception when approaching this intersection. Though they can clearly see a half-mile backup of bumper-to-bumper traffic stopped right in front of them during every weekday morning and afternoon rush hour, they are just sure they will make it past the light and through the intersection before the signal turns red. Fat chance. It never, ever happens.
And by playing this losing game, all these drivers manage to do successfully is completely block the exit from the Compo Shopping Center (CVS) parking lot, making that parking lot look like the George Washington Bridge toll plaza on the Sunday evening of a Memorial Day weekend. I know this because every time I try to exit that parking lot and make a left turn onto the Post Road on a weekday morning, I am prevented from leaving by a solid wall of stopped cars blocking the exit, as I blankly stare through their side windows at my green light and mentally calculate the “ramming speed” of my Jeep Wrangler.
Yes, that’s right soccer mom in your oversized SUV looking straight ahead pretending not to notice me while blocking my rightful exit amidst a chorus of honking horns. I see you, and I know you see me, too, though you won’t dare cast your eyes my way. You, too, hedge fund dude, using your new 523-horsepower Maserati of Westport convertible like a big, expensive stationary traffic cone. Did you really save any time by blocking traffic? I think not. You’re not going anywhere fast. And believe it or not, those of us stuck in the CVS parking lot due to your complete lack of consideration are in just as much a hurry to get to where we are going as you are.
Now, maybe there is a good engineering reason why the light at this intersection and the following one at Compo Road are synchronized in such a way as to create a westbound traffic bottleneck, but I place the blame for this traffic nightmare squarely on the drivers, not on the urban planners. So, without getting into all the technical language of the Connecticut statutes, let’s simply look again at the Connecticut State Driver’s Manual (July 2014 revision), which is elegant in its simplicity: “Even if you have the green light, do not start across the intersection if there are vehicles blocking your way. If you are caught in the intersection when the light changes to red, you will block other traffic. You can get a ticket for blocking an intersection.” And that’s just rude.
Similarly, the manual continues, “When required to stop because of a sign or signal, you must stop before your vehicle reaches the stop line.” (If you don’t know what the “stop line” is, it’s that big, wide, bright, white line painted across every intersection in America with a stop sign or red light, showing you exactly where to stop.) In the case of the intersection at hand, the “stop line” is more than 41 feet before the actual red light (scientifically measured by my nine year-old holding the end of my tape measure).
Solution: I originally thought the most effective solution to this problem was obvious: Install a battery of those long, razor-sharp vertical metal spikes like they have at the Hertz “Rental Car Return Lane” at the airport, which, when the light turns red, would automatically rise out of the asphalt and shred the tires of an offending motorist. I figured it would not take long for the message to sink in. And let’s face it: the only thing more effective than positive reinforcement is negative reinforcement.
However, upon further reflection, I think there is a better solution that is far easier, much less risky in terms of legal liability, and squarely within the power of our own town officials. In 2009, the State of Connecticut passed Public Act 09-171 that states, in relevant part, “No operator of a motor vehicle ... shall proceed into an intersection that has been designated, posted and marked by a municipality ... unless there is sufficient space on the opposite side of the intersection to accommodate such motor vehicle without obstructing the passage of other vehicles or pedestrians, notwithstanding the indication of a traffic control signal that would permit such operator to proceed into the intersection.”
Perfect. Very simple. All the town has to do is (i) identify the intersections it wants to designate (I can think of several — Stamford has almost two dozen), (ii) post a sign saying something like, “Don’t Block the Box”, and (iii) paint a cross-hatch of foot-wide white stripes delineating the intersection’s “box” that shall not be blocked. And of course, those violating the enacted “Don’t Block the Box” ordinance would be subject to special penalties assessed by the town. And trust me, I have some suggestions for these special penalties, as well.
Now, why this hasn’t been done in Westport for the last six years remains a mystery to me — nobody at Town Hall knows for sure. The consensus around town seems to be that such an ordinance is too tough to enforce. Too tough to enforce? This is like shooting fish in a barrel. Now, I won’t suggest using one of those “red-light cameras” that everybody hates, though it would pay for itself in an hour. However, you could occasionally post a junior police officer at that intersection and either create enough of a deterrent to stop the offenders, or write enough tickets in a week to pay his or her annual salary, with enough left over to reimburse Melissa and Doug for the annual fireworks at Compo.
My guess is that with some proper signs, a couple gallons of white paint and, perhaps, an occasional visit from a bicycled police officer with a citation pad, this traffic nightmare can be corrected. Of course, until then, when you approach this intersection driving west, it wouldn’t hurt to look up from your text messages and your Venti Low-Fat Caramel Ribbon Crunch Crème Frappuccino® and make a realistic assessment of your chances of actually making it all the way through the intersection before the light turns red.
And if, in your reasonable judgment, you don’t think you can make it, stop, relax and take a sip. It’s a short light.
Arthur Hayes is an attorney, practicing in New York City. He lives in Westport with his wife and two of his four children. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.