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City may update older street lights

On Thursday, an Austin police officer responding to a call collided with another vehicle while driving through an intersection that is not equipped with an emergency light sensor.

That means that officer Ryan Leif could not change the stop light from red to green, and he proceeded to turn left — with his lights and sirens on — through a red light. That’s when he and a man driving a Honda Civic crashed.

Accidents like this are rare — the Austin Police Department reports that there have been three such “uncontrolled intersection” incidents involving squad cars in the past 12 months, including the one on Thursday. One accident occurred on June 17, 2009, the night a tornado ripped through town and took out all lights throughout Austin.

Three is a small number when considering the fact that the APD responds to an average of roughly 2,000 to 3,000 911 calls per year, according to records.

But officers responding to calls don’t always have the extra safety feature to help them — roughly 40 percent of Austin’s intersections, including the one at Fourth Street Northwest and Interstate 90 where Thursday’s accident occurred, do not have emergency sensors, city engineer Jon Erichson said. Ten newer light systems in town do have sensors, Erichson noted, and the intersection at Oakland Avenue and Main Street is scheduled to join that group this year.

The engineer said the city is looking to ultimately update the rest of the older lights, partly because of the need for the sensors.

“That’s not the single reason, but it’s one of the reasons,” Erichson said. “It is a priority.”

Austin police Lt. John Mueller said sensors definitely do help from a safety perspective, and he added that many more experienced officers take “mental notes” of where they are — and are not — located in the city. However, Mueller said officers go through all intersections the same way when responding to calls.

That means slowing down as the cross-street nears and stopping if absolutely necessary. At lights without sensors, officers can go through red lights, and other lanes of traffic are supposed to yield regardless of what color the light is.

Mueller said all police officers in the state go through defensive driving training for such situations, and he added that staff at the APD are also well versed in how to use the sensors.

“I don’t think they’re using them as a crutch,” the lieutenant said. “They’re just an added thing for public safety and officer safety.”

Mueller said the key things in keeping squad-car-related accidents down are for citizens to remember to pull over to the right — if possible — when an emergency vehicle is coming, and to not wear headphones that could make hearing a siren impossible.

Ultimately, the lieutenant said he thinks officers and the people of Austin share city streets well.

“I think officers do a very good job,” Mueller said, “and I think citizens are very cognizant.”