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Dead traffic signals endanger motorists, pedestrians

Suffolk police Lt. Daniel Meyer talks about the laws that drivers should follow when traffic lights are not working. Videojournalist: Amanda Voisard (Oct. 31, 2012)

It's every driver and pedestrian for themselves at traffic intersections that Sandy has knocked powerless.

With most of Long Island still without electricity for the third straight day, there are hundreds of intersections where broken traffic signals can't announce who has the right of way.

Neither county government would give precise figures on how many intersections are without working traffic signals; Nassau said it's "hundreds"; Suffolk officials reported during the storm's peak it was more than half.

Under state law, all vehicles entering such intersections must make a full stop, then proceed as if the intersection were controlled by a four-way stop sign: a driver from each side takes turns going through the intersection.

But chaotic disregard for that law could be found throughout Long Island. Vehicles zoomed through broken-light intersections without stopping. Drivers trying to turn nearly got struck by others going straight. Pedestrians struggling to cross the street came within inches of moving vehicles.

"It's a big issue for us right now," said Suffolk police Insp. Stuart Cameron, who as the No. 2 in the chief of patrol's office is helping coordinate the disaster response.

Cameron said officers were out controlling traffic at intersections along major roadways such as routes 347, 25 and 110. Detectives, who are normally in plainclothes, are now in uniform on storm duty. State Police have volunteered to send troopers to help and are expected soon.

"It's basically all hands on deck," Cameron said.

As life returns to normal after Sandy, the problem will get worse as more drivers return to the road.

"Initially after the storm, it wasn't that much of a problem because people were staying home," Cameron said. "But now they want to come out of their homes. They may need food. They may need water. They may need gas."

LIPA spokeswoman Elizabeth Flagler said both counties have given the utility a list of priority intersections to fix. Complicating the situation, some signals can't be fixed without a substation or transmission line being repaired.

A spokesman for Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano said county police officers are helping with traffic flow, but the spokesman did not specify where they were posted.

Wednesday afternoon at the Roosevelt Field mall's Old Country Road entrance in Carle Place, there were no officers to control the onslaught of shoppers and other drivers trying to deal with the lack of traffic lights, and uniformed mall security guards took over.

Suffolk police have begun to temporarily alter traffic patterns for safety. For example, traffic cones at multilane intersections block drivers from making left turns across several traffic lanes, a turn that puts the driver at risk of being hit from two directions.

But many roadways have no street lighting, so Cameron urged motorists to not drive, especially at night.

"It becomes a very, very dangerous issue after dark because the roads are totally unlighted," he said. "It's pitch black."

It was at one such pitch-black intersection, at routes 347 and 112 in Port Jefferson Station, that a Suffolk police car broadsided a vehicle early Tuesday carrying Stony Brook University students, killing one of the passengers and badly injuring three others.

The student, Vishwaja Muppa, 21, of Edison, N.J., was declared dead at the scene.

With Robert Brodsky

and Emily C. Dooley

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