Do Traffic Lights Cause More Accident? Maybe So

Did you ever think that traffic lights could actually increase the likelihood of auto accidents?
You probably don’t think much about traffic lights at all – except to get irritated when you’re stuck at a red light with no other cars in sight. In two instances, however, cities trying to save the environment – or make a few extra dollars – can inadvertently put drivers at risk and increase the odds of a car accident, personal injury, or even wrongful death, just by toying with the basics of their traffic lights.
• Case #1 – Low Energy Use, High Winter Risk
In recent years, many traffic lights have been converted from conventional halogen incandescent bulbs to arrays of LED (light emitting diodes) bulbs. The LED bulbs have several obvious advantages – since they use much less energy they’re both “green” friendly, and they also lower energy costs dramatically – in a major intersection, that savings could reach $600 per year for a city. In fact, Wisconsin’s state Transportation Department saves an incredible $750,000 a year thanks to the new technology. LEDs also have a much longer life than the older bulbs.
So what’s not to like?
Well, the LED lights’ greatest advantage is also its greatest weakness. When a winter storm hits, the hi-tech bulbs don’t burn enough energy to melt away snow and ice. Which means the traffic light can easily get crusted over and not visible to a driver. Dozens of auto accidents and one wrongful death that occurred in April of 2009 in Illinois have been attributed to this problem
There is an easy lo-tech fix, however – a $20 Snow Scoop Visor can be attached to the traffic lights in question to prevent snow and ice build-up. Also, to be fair, it should be noted that the LEDs shine about four times more brightly than incandescents, rendering them far more visible after dark and in foggy conditions, meaning they have probably saved a great many lives by preventing some car accidents.
• Case #2 – Abandoning Caution with the Caution Light
To many, many drivers, when a green light turns yellow, that’s their signal to speed up to get through the intersection and beat the red light.
Many cities, though, when they install cameras at intersections to catch drivers running red lights, exacerbate the problem by actually decreasing the amount of time the yellow light flashes – so they can ticket more drivers and collect more revenue. The problem is that shortening the yellow light duration increases the chances of auto accidents – because drivers on either side of the light don’t have enough time to react. There have been many reports of increased car accidents, wrongful deaths, and personal injury cases as a result of these attempts to “cash in” with the cameras.
As a personal injury lawyer practicing in Seattle, Washington, I was gratified to see a bill recently introduced in the Washington state legislature designed to lock in a longer yellow light length – and to reduce the fines from the red light cameras, so no cities in Washington would be tempted to make money by raising the risk of intersection car accidents occurring.
Every action causes a reaction. That’s why even the smallest of adjustments to traffic light usage should be studied before they’re enacted.