Time to Kill

Toys for Tots run, 2009

Motorcycles negotiate traffic lights along State Line Ave. during the
2009 Toys for Tots run.

Most drivers have had the experience of pulling up to the signal light at an empty intersection, then waiting for the light to change. I’ve sat at intersections, feeling like the last man on earth, waiting for a light to turn. I always get the feeling that if I just pull on through, I’ll discover that the only other survivor of the worldwide apocalypse is an on-duty patrol officer. Right on red helps a little, but what about those times when you want to go straight or make a left? One website estimates average Americans spend two weeks of their lives waiting on red lights.
One possible solution to this problem is the use of “smart” lights. These are signal lights with some way of determining whether there is a vehicle waiting on the side of an intersection that is about to turn from red to green. Most of these use magnetic induction. They are basically big metal detectors buried in the road that detect the metal of a vehicle waiting at the light. Unfortunately most motorcycles either don’t contain enough metal or are too small to register on these devices.
The state of Oklahoma passed the “Motorcycle Mobility and Safety Act” that will allow motorcyclists to proceed through a red traffic light when the signal fails to change, but only after certain conditions are met. The law will go into effect Nov. 1. It will be interesting to see if, or how quickly, other states follow.
As an IT guy, I’m often frustrated when I see people try to solve a social or managerial problem with technology. Instead of buying another expensive filter and writing six pages of code to police Internet usage, just have managers enforce company policy. Technology isn’t always the answer. But sometimes it is.
In this case, we need to get better sensors or a manual bypass. The Oklahoma law only applies to intersections using traffic detectors, and then requires a complete stop. Unless a sign is posted, there is no way to be certain whether a signal light is using a detector. Local riders, who will know, will likely just avoid that intersection. It’s the people passing through who will get stuck and have no way of knowing for sure if the light is using a sensor, or simply defective. This just-drive-on-through solution also fails to resolve the problem of waiting your turn when traffic is going the other direction.
Deploying technology isn’t always the solution and deploying defective technology is rarely the solution. It’s time to step back and determine whether the current state of “smart” light technology is causing more problems that it solves.

— Guy Wheatley

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