Saturday, June 03, 2006

Better Traffic Signals Needed

I’m all for traffic safety; I drive and I want to be safe doing so. I’m not an aggressive driver, but consider myself a defensive one. I seldom take unnecessary chances on the road.

But Johnson County law enforcement agencies have recently earmarked a $9,500 grant from the Criminal Justice Institute to enforce a relatively minor traffic violation just because it happens to be the sheriff’s pet peeve.

Sheriff Terry McLaughlin says it’s a big safety issue, especially along U.S. 31 between Franklin and Greenwood. Motorists continue to turn left at signals even after the green left-turn arrow has gone off.

There is a law on the books that makes it a violation to run a red light, whether turning left or going straight. It would seem to me that the violations are equally dangerous and drivers who run red lights ought to be ticketed.

But why crack down on drivers who are simply trying to beat the light as long as they do not actually enter into the intersection after the light has turned red?

The sheriff specifically stated the violation includes those drivers who turn red after the green arrow goes off. After the green arrow goes off, the yellow arrow comes on. The yellow arrow is a warning to drivers that the red light will soon come on. But it is not against the law to enter an intersection on a yellow light.

It’s not even specifically written into the law that simply being in an intersection on a red light is illegal. Indiana Code states, “…vehicular traffic facing a steady circular red signal alone shall stop at a clearly marked stop line.” It goes on to say that, absent a clearly marked line, the vehicle will stop before entering the intersection.

As for a yellow light, the code says that it is simply a signal to the motorist that the light is about to turn red. It does not prohibit a vehicle from entering an intersection on yellow.

So why am I knit-picking?

There is so much traffic on the roads these days that any measure taken by police to keep traffic moving should be encouraged. If a driver enters the intersection after the light turns red, whether turning left or not, he or she should be ticketed. But if three or four cars continue on after the light turns yellow, that’s three or four cars that no longer need to wait in line, possibly building up road rage.

Of course, the ideal solution would be to put extra funds into technology that would vastly improve our traffic control devices. There haven’t been any significant refinements in the way traffic signals operate for decades.

Traffic signals need to be smarter. They need to know the traffic patterns at the intersection and react accordingly.

Currently, there are metal detectors embedded in the road at most intersections that have traffic signals. These detectors are better than nothing. Signals at intersections with no detectors are simply timed, and it’s not uncommon for vehicles to have to wait for several seconds at an intersection that has no cross traffic.

But even with the in-pavement detectors, traffic signals are not smart enough to efficiently direct a huge amount of traffic, such as what occurs during peak driving times.

Miniature cameras and motion detectors connected to a computer with software designed to analyze traffic flow on the spot is what is needed to keep traffic flowing. These smart signals could allow an entire line of traffic to make it through the intersection, then quickly switch the right-of-way to cross traffic without the need to wait an extra five to seven seconds for an intervening yellow light.

In this scenario, yellow lights would be needed only to stop a very long line of continuous traffic once the cross-traffic line reaches a certain length. During lighter traffic periods, yellow lights would be unnecessary, since the computer would know that there is no oncoming traffic to warn.

Smart traffic signals could behave like traffic cops. In the city, traffic cops are often used during times of extremely heavy traffic because the human brain is better at making decisions than metal detectors built into the roadway. Smart signals could use algorithms that mimic the brain of a traffic cop to keep traffic moving much more efficiently.

In addition, smart signals could detect when someone runs a red light after a change from yellow. The computer could then delay giving the green light to cross traffic until the perpetrator clears the intersection.

Smart signals are probably possible with today’s technology. Certainly, installing them would not be cheap. But in the long run, they would more than pay for themselves by keeping busy intersections clear and by preventing accidents caused by drivers trying to beat the light.

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