If you were one of the myriad San Franciscans attempting to sneak out of the city a few hours early last Friday afternoon, you may have noticed SoMa traffic was even more congested than usual. That’s because, in addition to the normal mad rush to the Bay Bridge in conjunction with everyone and their mother heading up to Lake Tahoe for the long Fourth of July weekend, there was a massive, multi-car accident caused by a wrong-way driver snarling traffic in the neighborhood all afternoon.
The collision at Sixth and Harrison streets, which occurred just before 4pm, sent ten people to the hospital with non-life threatening injuries.
In the days immediately following the accident, eagle-eyed Appeal reader Justin Clarke noticed something odd.
“I’m concerned about the safety of that intersection,” says Clarke, “I drive though it every day. I paid extra attention…and was stunned when I saw green lights though my rear view mirror as I headed west on Harrison past 6th.”
Unlikely as it seems, Clarke is right. There really are traffic lights facing the wrong direction down Harrison–a four-lane, one-way street going south-west. The lights are fully functional and mirror the cycle of the traffic signals facing the opposite direction.
“Maybe there’s a valid reason for this,” says Clarke, “but I can’t help but think it could have been a contributing factor in…[last week’s] pileup.”
While city officials are still in the process of investigating precisely what occurred last Friday, a SFPD spokesperson confirmed that the crash was caused by a motorist going the wrong way down Harrison–something that very well may have been triggered by the driver seeing the fully-functioning stop light and thinking it indicated a two-way street.
Noting that these particular traffic signals have been in place for well over a decade, SFMTA spokesman Paul Rose says that, “three-color signals, by California law, do not establish that vehicles can travel the wrong way on a one-way street, and our experience is that the vast majority of drivers understand this.”
Traffic signals on one-way streets facing the same direction as the flow of traffic actually serve a number of functions. At intersections without pedestrian crossing signals, they can be used to control foot traffic moving across the street.
In the years before the installation of the pedestrian signals at this particular intersection, says Rose, this was likely the purpose these lights served.
Additionally, says Rose, “people may at times request these supplemental signals to provide indication of what color of light is being shown to downstream traffic,” making it easier for someone exiting a driveway downstream to know if it’s safe to merge on the street.
Even so, the lights could have been a factor in a driver, especially one unfamiliar with the area, inadvertently making a wrong turn into oncoming traffic.
“I drive through that intersection every day, and I got…[there] right as they shut…[it] down,” says Clarke with a shiver.
“It’s scary to consider what might have happened if I got on the road a few minutes earlier. So this isn’t me trying to troll the city–I care because this could’ve been me.”