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Timed Traffic Lights?

Have you ever had one of those days when it seems like you get caught by every single red light on your daily commute? Traffic lights have been annoying us for a very, very long time.  Apparently, the first lights were set up in the UK back in 1868 (yes, in the country that also brought us speeding tickets). These lights used variations on railway signals and controlled the bustling traffic outside the British Houses of Parliament. London has had traffic issues ever since…  The original lights exploded after less than a year of use, as they used gas for the lighting system.  The USA then copied the idea but threw in electricity for lighting (thanks, Mr Edison) and added a yellow light.

Nowadays, we’re all familiar with the red-yellow-green system. However, a few people need a bit of a reminder that the yellow (also known as orange or amber) actually means “slow down and prepare to stop” rather than “put your foot down so you can get into the intersection before the light turns red”.  j

I guess I’m not alone in sitting at an intersection waiting at a red light and wondering “How much longer am I going to wait for?”  Other questions that flit through my mind is whether or not it’s going to be worth popping the gear into neutral or not while I’m waiting rather than sitting there with the auto still on Drive and the brake on.

And it looks like there are starting to be attempts to answer this sort of question.  There are rumours on the internet of a new LED traffic lights system that has been designed by someone named Thanva Tivawong.  This design gets rid of the traditional row of three lights (more if you’ve got a multilane intersection with left and right turn arrows, plus lights for bikes or buses or trams) and replaces them with an hourglass shaped display. The hourglass changes colour and “sand” trickles down, showing how much more time you’ve got left before the lights change. They also have a “get ready” yellow light between red and green – a sort of “ladies and gentlemen, start your engines” signal so you know when to start getting in gear.


Comments on the web have included queries about how colourblind drivers are going to cope, as you don’t have the usual red up the top, green down the bottom convention (which was put in place for the sake of colourblind drivers).  I guess something could be sorted out – horizontal stripes for red and vertical stripes for green, maybe.

As far as a quick flick around the web can make out, it’s unclear whether or not these lights are actually installed anywhere yet. They may still just be a concept.  Certainly, there would be a lot of legal hoo-hah and research before they actually get adopted anywhere.

This isn’t the first time a designer has tried to include time left into a traffic signal. There was the “Marshalite” design that came out in the 1940s that had an arrow that travelled around a circle like a clock hand, moving from red to green, with a brief segment painted amber. These were an Aussie innovation and several of these were around Melbourne until the 1970s. You can still find one on display somewhere in the Melbourne Museum.


But I have to admit that the traffic light system that I liked best was the rather basic one that they had in La Paz, capital of Bolivia, in the late 1980s, when I lived over there. Most traffic lights outside the city centre were operated manually by a cop, except late at night when there wasn’t much traffic (not sure what they did then – I was never out that late).  The cop would sit there flipping the switch up and down, with a brief pause in the amber section that showed yellow for all directions. There were no problems with hoons using the “get ready to go” signal as an opportunity for a drag race, as there was a cop there watching everything.  The cop would usually change the lights when the waiting traffic on any road built up to a certain level. Usually is the operative word. Most motorists knew perfectly well that if a chauffeur-driven Mercedes swept along, standing out like a sore thumb in the middle of the Beetles, Ladas and Pajeros, the lights would be operated in its favour… after all, it could be a government official or the head of police in there.  The human factor would also come into play if you were (a) good looking and female, and gave the cop a nice smile; or (b) had a heap of kids waiting to cross as pedestrians.

It probably isn’t the world’s most exciting job and it probably doesn’t have to be done by fully-fledged cops, but couldn’t this sort of system be a solution to unemployment problems?

One comment

  1. Jon Lockhsrt says:

    The three light notification system works well in the UK.

    Green-orange-red Then Orange- green

    February 23rd, 2014 at 3:34 pm