Robert Schmidt was alerted by the sound of honking horns.

That’s when the Ottawa man learned the traffic lights were out at the intersection where he works at Wellington and Bay Streets. It was Wednesday afternoon, and local power had been knocked out by the city’s first heavy snowfall.

So Schmidt decided to video the intersection from his fourth floor window for a few minutes, just to see what happens. He posted some of the action on YouTube.

It was not a banner moment for Ottawa drivers.

Most did the right thing, treating the uncontrolled intersection as an all-way stop. But many sailed right through, oblivious to the vehicles that had already stopped and had the right-of-way.  “I was stressed,” says Schmidt. “I was worried that someone would get hurt.”  

As a driver and a cyclist, he was also upset that so many drivers don’t seem to know the rules of the road. “I know the law. I know that the law is that people should treat the stop as an all-way stop. I’m frustrated that they weren’t doing that,” he says.

Sgt. Mark Gatien of the Ottawa Police Traffic suggests it might not be ignorance of the law but simple inattention.  “They are on autopilot, most of them,” he says.

Upon viewing the video, Gatien noted that several drivers went through the intersection in bunches. It suggests they weren’t paying attention to anything other than the car directly ahead – something he calls eye lead. “Their eye lead is the car in front of them, not what’s happening way up ahead. They know the intersection is there but they still go through.”

They got away with it this time. Ottawa Police were kept too busy by the snow storm to get an officer on scene and work crews soon repaired the lights. Fortunately there were no collisions or injuries.

But take note. The penalty for failing to yield the right-of-way is a $110 fine. And if you do cause damage it’s likely your insurance company will take careful note as well.