www.ethanwiner.com - since 1997

Report on traffic lights on
Connecticut state roads

By Ethan Winer

There's no disputing that the root cause of rush-hour traffic backups on Connecticut roads is due mainly to the sheer number of cars and trucks. But another important factor is the poor implementation of traffic lights by the State DOT. Once a line of cars has stopped for a red light, much of the initial time after the light turns green is wasted just getting back up to speed. Therefore, traffic lights should use longer timing periods during rush hours than for the rest of the day. Likewise, it is equally important that the cycle times be kept short when there are fewer cars, to avoid unnecessary waiting. But this particular issue is just the tip of the iceberg. Of the many intersections I regularly drive through in Danbury and its surrounding towns, fewer than a dozen control signals are programmed properly.

Badly programmed traffic lights are more than an inconvenience - the constant and unnecessary stopping and starting wastes fuel and adds greatly to air pollution. Unfair lights also encourage risky driving. Many motorists speed up when a light turns yellow; others abuse the right-on-red privilege, using it as a license to cut into flowing traffic. Indeed, driving is often frustrating enough without the DOT making things worse.

A traffic light on a main road should never turn red unless cars are in fact waiting at the side street. And once those cars have passed, the light should change back immediately to favor the main road. How many times have you waited at a side street when no traffic was coming on the main road, only to have the light change just as main-road traffic finally approached? Had you been allowed to proceed earlier when there was no other traffic, you wouldn't have had to wait, and the cars on the main road wouldn't have had to stop. This is not rocket science. Equipment to handle traffic lights properly has been available for many years. The problem is the DOT often doesn't know what to buy or how to use it.

The traffic lights at most intersections employ a detector installed under the roadway to sense when a car passes over it. These detectors then tell the traffic control box that a car is waiting, and to change to a green light after the minimum red time has elapsed. But these simplistic devices don't distinguish cars turning into a street, nor do they sense when a car has turned right on red and thus no longer needs a green light.

Another common problem is when traffic in one direction gets a left turn green arrow advance even when no cars are present to take advantage, thus making opposing cars wait for no reason. The DOT will tell you that unless there's a dedicated left turn lane, there's no way to skip the green arrow advance. This is wrong! If there's no traffic in that direction at all, the detectors know that and the controller can be programmed to let opposing traffic proceed immediately. Further, many intersections that do have a dedicated left turn lane still get an advance even when no cars are in that lane.

And when a traffic detector stops working, it should be fixed instead of bypassed. A broken detector in Ridgefield at the intersection of Main and Governor streets was inoperative for the entire four years I lived in that area. Day or night, all traffic on already-congested Main Street (Rt. 35) had to stop for side-road traffic that wasn't there, and then wait some more because the pedestrian walk light was always included in the cycle even when nobody pressed the push button.

Traffic lights on state-controlled roads aren't the only culprit: Many No turn on red signs are unfair, placed at intersections where there is a clear sight-line to oncoming traffic. Were side-street cars allowed to go right on red at these intersections - and the lights programmed to cancel the request for a green light once they left the intersection - there would be one less impediment for traffic on the main road.

The technology to implement traffic control as I describe exists and is in fact present in nearly all of the traffic control boxes already in place. The state simply needs to install the detectors and program the existing control boxes more intelligently. Even when the detectors are working as intended, it is common for all cars to have to stop at a given intersection because detectors are not installed far enough ahead of the intersection for the control boxes to see what's coming and behave appropriately. Likewise, it is rare for lights at adjacent intersections to be synchronized, which often results in traffic waiting to get a green light, only to have to stop again as the next light a few feet up the road just turns red.

In a nutshell, traffic lights should do exactly what a police officer directing traffic would do, and there's no good reason they can't.

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