Owen Courreges: The Top 10 traffic laws New Orleans loves to break

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Owen Courrèges

Owen Courrèges

New Orleanians have long suspected that our drivers (like our government) are completely ignorant of the law. There’s some basis in fact for this view. A 2013 study found that Louisiana had the worst drivers in the country.

“In the case of Louisiana they still rank 48th worst for the Careless Driving category (pedestrians/pedacyclists fatality rate), while also ranking 41st worst in Fatalities Rate per 100 Million Vehicle Miles Traveled,” wrote Jeffrey Crews, vice president of CarInsuranceComparison.com. “[W]hile Louisiana’s #1 overall ranking may be partially attributed to stringent enforcement of the law they still score high in almost every category we looked at.”

Of course, pedestrians aren’t much better. New Orleans is downright notorious for people wandering around aimlessly in the street – many of which aren’t even intoxicated.

Yes, it does seem like we have an unusually high number of scofflaws in our fair city. The municipal code seems like more a set of guidelines to people on our streets. Personally, I think it’s high time somebody compiled a list of laws that New Orleanians need to have burned into their brains.

Thus, without further ado, I give you the top ten most neglected traffic and parking laws in the City of New Orleans (in no particular order):

10. Pedestrians have right-of-way at all intersections. Many motorists don’t realize this (at least judging by their injudicious use of their horns), but the law draws no distinction between a marked and unmarked crosswalk. Hence, wherever you have two intersecting sidewalks at an intersection, there is a crosswalk. In crosswalks, pedestrians have right-of-way, meaning that they can proceed even it requires oncoming vehicular traffic to stop or slow down. The only caveat to this rule is a sensible one: pedestrians can’t step off the curb if there isn’t reasonable time for traffic to slow or stop safely.

9. Signaling (turns, lane changes, etc.) is not optional. This reminds me of an old article that once appeared in the satirical New Orleans Levee entitled: “Local man uses ‘turn stick.’” “A New Orleans man discovered what the stick on the left side of his steering column was for Thursday,” the article began. “It’s called a ‘turn signal.’” Let’s face it – New Orleans drivers are so bad about signaling that one wonders if they realize what the blasted things are. It causes a lot of accidents.

8. Vehicles cannot park within 20 feet of any intersection. Street parking is often difficult to find in New Orleans, so it’s understandable that some get a bit creative with it. However, most laws exist for a reason, and the reason that we don’t allow cars to park up against intersections is two-fold: 1) it blocks the crosswalk (see #10); and, 2) it kills visibility for traffic coming in all directions. I can’t tell you the number of serious accidents I’ve seen that were caused by parking violators who made it impossible for cars to see. It puts everyone at serious risk.

7. Don’t speed, and most importantly, go with the flow of traffic. Most speed limits in the city are reasonable and it makes sense to follow them. It’s easier to stop to avoid hazards if you’re not zipping down Magazine Street at 50 miles per hour. However, a corollary to this is that motorists shouldn’t drive too slowly either. Studies have consistently shown that major differentials in speed, even slower speeds, can be even more dangerous to vehicles in traffic than simple speeding. I know you might be taking family around to see the mansions in the Garden District, but that doesn’t make it appropriate to go 15 miles per hour down Prytania.

6. Pedestrians are limited to sidewalks and crosswalks. It should go without saying, but wandering around in the middle of the street – something that seems to be a national pastime in New Orleans – is obscenely dangerous. There are giant metal machines careening about at relatively high rates of speed, and they can’t always keep an eye out for you. It’s understandable that pedestrians will jaywalk every now and again when the street is clear, but in general pedestrians need to stay on the sidewalk where cars expect them to be. Otherwise, they risk winding up as road pizza.

5. Cyclists have to follow the same traffic rules as cars. I won’t belabor this point because it has been made before, but some cyclists need to stop acting as though they’re exempt from all traffic laws. No, you can’t ride against traffic. No, you can’t run red lights and stop signs. No, you can’t ride on the sidewalk. While I don’t advocate or support a crackdown on cyclists (because motorists are the bigger threat to public safety), they need to stop being prominent scofflaws.

4. Don’t run red lights. It’s disturbing that I even have to mention this, but I continually see people who think that they can just sneak by on a red light. Alas, traffic lights around New Orleans usually do not have any delay between when one direction goes red and the other goes green, so even barely running a red light can easily cause an accident. Worse, it provides superficial justification for red-light cameras that deprive us of due process.

3. The city is obligated to post proper signage. As much as I’ve been criticizing drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians, there are also obligations on the part of the city that it isn’t living up to. I’ve passed numerous intersections in recent weeks where there was no stop sign on the right side of a one-way street, which could lead to a car barreling through. Other intersections lack street signs, which force motorists to drive around needlessly or attempt risky u-turns. Finally, although the meter maids don’t seem to care, the city is poor about keeping up readable “no parking” signs where parking is prohibited. Not only does this result in bogus parking tickets, but it also clogs streets.

2. Don’t straddle multiple lanes of traffic. I know the city does a poor job of painting stripes on streets with multiple lanes (in fact, I’ve written about it previously), but even when it’s obvious that there are at least two lanes, I often see motorists plodding around in the middle until somebody honks at them (usually me). Folks, just pick a lane. I understand you’re trying to avoid potholes and give yourself a smooth ride, but you need to do that from within a single lane of traffic.

1. Maintain a reasonable lookout. This is the most significant issue of all. Anybody who goes out on city streets and doesn’t pay attention to what’s going on around them is going to eventually have trouble. The degree to which people are oblivious can be downright astounding; I’ve had a person pull out in front of me when I was actually making eye contact with the driver – twice. This is much broader than just texting-while-driving or cycling through music. Some people don’t need distractions to zone out. But if you don’t pay attention, you can’t avoid hazards. Worse, you become one.

That just about covers it. Be safe on those roads, dear readers.

Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.

36 thoughts on “Owen Courreges: The Top 10 traffic laws New Orleans loves to break

  1. I’d like to add 2 more:

    (1) Headlights must be turned on when windshield wipers are in use. Actually, headlights are supposed be turned on from sunrise to sunset. When there is a torrential downpour (like we typically get), it’s extremely difficult to merge into traffic, switch lanes, and/or see a car heading toward you on our tight, 2-way streets.

    (2) Child occupant seat belt law – I see SO many children that should be in seat belts and/or carseats and they are not. It’s saddening.

    • Uptown,

      You’re correct about headlights being required when it is raining (this is especially problematic with grey and other hard-to-see cars), but I think you’ve got the other part reversed — If I recall correctly, it’s from 30 minutes of sunset to 30 minutes of sunrise (or at night).

  2. Parking too close to the corner is the worst. I am probably going to get an SUV for my next car just so I have better visibility around illegally parked cars.

  3. “No Left Turn” and “No Turn on Red” signs are effectively a huge waste of the City’s funds. They are neither honored nor enforced. I suppose they are there only to serve insurance companies in sorting out liability after an accident.

  4. And bicyclists are required to used actual lights, not merely reflectors, when riding in the dark. Motorists should also pass bicyclists at least three feet to the left of the cyclist. Also, TRIcycles–increasingly popular with old codgers, as I am, are WIDER than bicycles.

    The three things I fear most, and which frequently happen to me are: driver’s doors swung open in front of me, whether or not there’s a bike lane; motorists turning right on red when they can’t notice a bi/tricycle moving straight into their paths; motorists turning right ahead of a bi/tricyclist who has NOT signaled a right turn and who was near the intersection before the car sped up to cut off the cyclist. Remember that incident with the truck at Elysian Fields? I had two cars do that to me this past Sunday.

    I also frequently see scofflaws use bike lanes to pass other vehicles on the right. Nearly got hit by two fools, recently; a while back I was nearly run over by five motorcyclists who used my bike path to pass several cars on the right.

    I do want to publicly thank all the motorists who permitted me to make a left turn from Loyola onto Howard in rush hour traffic last Wednesday…think about THAT maneuver, and ask yourself if you respect cyclists who use turning signals and due caution.

  5. Amen Owen . I’m originally from New York where out of control taxis careen down the streets at high speed and other insane practices.
    But- most people signal when changing lanes and making turns . Rain – lights and wipers. In fairness , the roads here are awful! The turning areas are hazardous , the street signs too small or illegible, and the lanes are not marked as you mention. Not to mention cars suddenly swerving it stopping to avoid massive potholes.

  6. Want your head to explode? (I know it doesn’t take much, O.C.)
    Try to decode the contradictory signage along Palmetto Avenue as you approach Carrollton Avenue from the north. The City is already on notice for placing drivers in a “Turn Only” left lane which (surprise!) becomes a “Thru OK” lane … while the “Can Turn Left” right lane becomes a “Straight Only” lane at the actual intersection. #wildwest

    • TimGNO,

      I know. but I believe the age is 14 or 15. Most people I see riding on sidewalks are clearly not that young; it’s more an exception than it is the rule.

    • In reality, everybody on a bike should be on the sidewalk and nowhere near the street, where it is dangerous for them and causes traffic problems, unless there is no sidewalk on that street. I see college students riding around on the sidewalks, and I think, “Wow, they actually aren’t selfish.” This is legal in St. Bernard and Jefferson Parish.

  7. New Orleans drivers are probably the best in the US- so few accidents considering that there’s absolutely no supervision (okay, maybe a few cameras).

    • Where are speed traps?
      Moving some around from day to day, hour to hour and street to street would make some drivers more alert to speed limits and bring in enough in fines to justify the use of extra traffic cops (if the money isn’t stolen by traffic court clerks).

  8. Number 10 doesn’t apply when there’s a “No Turn on Red” sign for drivers, at least in the CBD. For instance, If I’m driving on Canal Street towards the intersection of St. Charles and want to make a right, I’m only supposed to turn when the light is green on Canal (There’s a “No Turn on Red” sign posted). When the light is green, the corresponding pedestrian crosswalk signal – if it’s working – is showing a “Don’t Walk” indication for anyone trying to cross St. Charles on foot. In that instance, pedestrians should wait until the “Walk” indication appears (at which point the stoplight for Canal changes to red, prohibiting cars from turning right). Confusingly, this system only applies in select areas of the CBD. Poydras Street, by contrast, has the more typical “yield to pedestrians” system, possesses no pedestrian crosswalk signals of any sort, and is not marked with any “No Turn on Red” signs. It is, rather, marked with numerous signs reading “Turning Vehicles Yield to Pedestrians.” Also, numerous intersections in the pie slice between Canal and Poydras permit pedestrians to cross diagonally at times (poles are equipped with three, instead of two pedestrian crosswalk signals and the road is, sometimes, striped with what vaguely looks like an imperial cross from overhead, to accommodate diagonal pedestrian crossing.) A consistent setup? Nope.

  9. The most important reason for prohibiting parking within twenty feet of an intersection (#8) is so that large emergency vehicles, mostly fire trucks, can negotiate the turn. Lots of time is lost if the vehicle can not negotiate a turn on its most direct route and has to find an alternative route.

  10. Also, I hate that at most intersections there is no point at which all lights are red simultaneously. It’s really dangerous.

  11. My top two (and there are many) pet peeves (how can I limit myself?): (1) Drivers who think that turning on their left-turn signal gives them the right to make a left turn in front of oncoming traffic (obviously never heard of “failure to yeild”); (2) Everyone who thinks that double-parking is fine, even when there are legit places a few feet further down the street.

  12. Here’s another one, and I’m sure there are many examples of it – paying attention to the lane markers in roundabouts. On my way home from work I frequently take Howard to Lee Circle, ending up on the inner lane, and want to get out on St. Charles. While the inner lane is clearly marked as straight or right turn, the outer lane is marked as right turn only. It has happened to me several times that drivers on the outer lane decided to keep on straight in Lee Circle, thus putting me in a hazardous situation, making my lawful right turn from the inner lane. One of those vehicles was a New Orleans tour bus. And I’ve gotten honked at by drivers like this, which, obviously, just adds to the frustration.

    • I feel like this changed in the aftermath of Katrina. All intersections with malfunctioning lights – flashing or not – were considered 4 way stops. Often there were stop signs placed in the intersection under flashing lights; the one I remember most clearly was Robertson next to the Dome. People got into the habit of stopping no matter the color of the light and have continued the practice.

    • Chilly,

      I’m gonna go with UptwnGirl on this one. I always felt that it was horrendously unsafe to give one side a flashing yellow and the other a flashing red, because people coming on direction can’t easily see what the other side is getting. I understand stopping at the flashing yellow for safety (and to allow traffic going the other direction a chance to proceed).

      • When there are no lights functioning, it is a four-way stop. Flashing yellows are used to maintain traffic flow (e.g. a major road would have all flashing yellows, a minor road would have flashing red). If you have a flashing yellow, the other side has a flashing red, it’s how they are programmed. Also, my friend got into an accident while evacuating for Katrina because he stopped and assumed that the other person would stop (because everyone here does) and HE got the ticket! I’ve been an advocate for telling others the actual law since then. Here’s the citation from the City of New Orleans Code of Ordinances:

        Sec. 154-239. – Flashing signals.

        (a) Whenever an illuminated flashing red or yellow signal is used in a traffic sign or signal, it shall require obedience by vehicular traffic as follows:

        (1) Flashing red (Stop signal). When a red lens is illuminated with rapid intermittent flashes, drivers of vehicles shall stop before entering the nearest crosswalk at an intersection or at a limit line when marked or, if none, then before entering the intersection, and the right to proceed shall be subject to the rules applicable after making a stop at a stop sign.

        (2) Flashing yellow or amber (Caution signal). When a yellow lens is illuminated with rapid intermittent flashes, drivers of vehicles may proceed through the intersection or past such signal only with caution.

        Here’s a link to Louisiana Revised Statues: http://law.justia.com/codes/louisiana/2011/rs/title32/rs32-232-1

  13. The worst is the foot of Canal by the ferry, aquarium, Harrah’s, and Canal Place. It’s already a confusing confluence of streets, but it’s also crowded with tourists and doesn’t have functioning crosswalk signals.

  14. Frank,

    I should have noted that pedestrians do have to obey all traffic signals, which includes traffic lights if there are no walk/don’t walk signs. That’s another major caveat to #10.

    • If the sidewalk is too crowded, that just means they need to slow down or walk their bike until it becomes safe again. Sidewalk riding is necessarily slower anyway, so the safety risk is pretty low for alert riders and pedestrians.

  15. one of my most-loathed abominations is the all-too-common practice of making a left turn from a stop sign onto a 4-lane thoroughfare (e.g., bienville st) with no regard for oncoming traffic…ie, said motorists pull out into the intersection thinking it’s completely ok to stop traffic in one direction while they wait for traffic in the other direction to clear. NEWSFLASH: you make your left turn when BOTH lanes are clear.

    and then the the city couldn’t even be bothered to install a simple left-turn arrow at s. carrollton riverbound and I-10 when they recently put in a whole new stoplight configuration to handle costco traffic. traffic already tended to stack up there before costco went in; now it’s a complete clusterf#&k.

    just up the street at n. carrollton and conti, there’s the heavily patronized rouse’s grocery and other corporate eateries on one side and the new-ish winn dixie shopping center which went in in 2013 on the other side. traffic has increased tenfold on that stretch yet no stoplight at an intersection where one is clearly needed.

    this is made more galling by the fact that all this new retail generates buckoo sales tax revenue yet city planners can’t even be bothered with putting in basic infrastructure for such endeavors.

    new orleans–still stuck on stupid.

    • Until recently I traveled that route for work, and I have probably seen at least 10 accidents in that 2-block area by the grocery stores.

  16. Can we add one about many people (in cars and on bicycles alike) thinking that one-way streets are merely a suggestion? I’ve probably run into this (almost literally on a couple occasions) several times in just the past couple weeks.

  17. Chilly,

    My point is that the law doesn’t prohibit stopping at a flashing yellow, and it’s safer to do so. Naturally you can’t assume that the other side will stop, but that’s the problem — you can’t easily see the light the other side is getting. The best practice is to either stop (as if it were a four-way stop) or proceed very slowly.

    • I would argue that it is more dangerous to have some drivers stopping while others proceed with caution. But I think we can both agree, this is a traffic law that New Orleans loves to break 🙂

    • As is the point of your original post, it is safer to have everyone aware of and following the same rules. Flashing yellows are not stops and stopping at them creates an unpredictable irregularity in the traffic flow.

  18. Turlet,

    It’s not very safe for bicycles to be on sidewalks at all; whizzing around pedestrians places them at risk, which is why as a rule they’re kept separate. Besides, most sidewalks in this city aren’t suitable for bicycles anyway.

    • The roads and the sidewalks here are both unsuitable for bicycles, but the people on bicycles apparently are unhappy with becoming Lance Armstrong Pancakes. Whether the streets are legal, the sidewalks are legal, or both are legal seems to be pretty random nationally, but I have to imagine the sidewalk injury and death rates are pretty low. The Great Bicycle War of 2016 will settle these issues.

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