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Emily Welker, Published March 09 2013

VIDEO: Flash of future coming to area stoplights

FARGO – Get ready for some new direction on area roads.

Traffic planners in Fargo-Moorhead are studying which of the metro area’s intersections would benefit from flashing yellow left turn signals – a still-rare sight here that’s increasingly common in stoplight palettes across the U.S.

A flashing yellow arrow replaces the solid green in turn lanes, signifying that a left is legal as long as the driver yields to any oncoming traffic. A federal study found the signal is more intuitive and safer than the “green ball” light, traffic planning officials say.

“It’s just kind of the wave of the future,” said Dan Farnsworth, a transportation planner with the Metropolitan Council of Governments, the agency studying where to use flashing yellow arrows here.

Farnsworth said North Dakota is one of just five states that don’t have flashing yellow arrows. Moorhead has one, at the intersection of 12th Avenue South and 20th Street, but Minnesota’s new standards require them to be installed at dedicated left-hand turns. Minnesota has 133, most of which are concentrated so far in the Twin Cities.

“I think it’s becoming popular throughout the country,” he said.

The intermittent yellow left-turn arrow flashes for about 20 to 25 seconds. A solid yellow arrow means the left-turn signal is about to turn to red. Farnsworth said studies show the green ball can make some drivers forget that they don’t have right of way, creating a greater risk of collision for left turns in busy traffic.

Jeremy Gorden, a traffic engineer for the city of Fargo, said a flashing yellow arrow can also give engineers more flexibility to coordinate lights to allow left-hand turns more readily in off-peak driving times.

In other words, it could mean less time waiting at a light to make a left turn.

“For you non-technical folks, just pretend you’re at an intersection with red, yellow and green arrows. You sit there and sit there – while you can see for miles that no one’s coming,” he said.

In addition to identifying which intersection could benefit from the addition of flashing yellow left-turn arrows, MetroCOG is studying the potential cost of retrofitting the intersections as well as the safety benefits and traffic impact.

Gorden said he has identified 23 potential intersections in the city of Fargo.

Both Gorden and Farnsworth admit there’s often some worry expressed from drivers about new traffic control devices, such as the controversy over using roundabouts at some area road crossings.

But with education, drivers get more comfortable with roundabouts, Gorden said, and the roundabout near Davies High School helps manage speeds there.

“The kids would have gone way too fast through an intersection there,” he said.

Farnsworth said public education about flashing yellows would be a focus of an upcoming meeting of city engineers and MetroCOG officials.

“Signing is something else to discuss, possibly a sign on a signal mast next to the light,” he said. “Of course education is a big factor, especially since everyone’s programmed for the green ball.”

Farnsworth said MetroCOG hopes to complete the study and present recommendations by September. After that, it’s up to the individual cities.

Gorden said he thinks some drivers will love the new arrows. And that some won’t.

“A lot of the complaints, it’s generational. Younger people love them,” he said. “Older drivers think I’m crazy.”

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Emily Welker at (701) 241-5541