I’d like to believe that each of us has a secret interest in something that’s not bad or wrong, but sufficiently out of the ordinary that we might be hesitant to share it with anyone. Even total strangers. Have I got your curiosity up?
Mine couldn’t be safer or less offensive. And it probably couldn’t be much tamer.
Drum roll, please.
Yes, you know what I mean: those devices that hang in the middle of busy intersections (or at the side of the street in some locales) and tempt us to go through on red when there’s not another car in sight and no place for a police car to hide and catch us doing it. A test of our willingness to obey the law even when there’s no obvious reason to.
But that’s not what fascinates me about traffic lights. As a former computer programmer, I have some knowledge of the way programs branch differently according to the conditions. Consider, for example, an email address field that rejects what you enter if you don’t put an “@” in it somewhere but readily accepts it otherwise, even if the address is incorrect. Or a telephone number field that rejects anything but digits–and just the right number of them.
Perhaps it’s not so much the traffic lights themselves that fascinate me, but the logic that’s built into them and how they interact with sensors. There appear to be two basic kinds of traffic light logic.
One I think of as the dumb kind. It doesn’t appear to have any logic. It keeps going mindlessly through the exact same cycle regardless of the flow of traffic. Probably an older traffic light, it doesn’t appear to be connected to a sensor of any kind. The dumb kind is the super-irritating kind.
The other kind is what I consider the smart kind. Obviously connected to one or more sensors, it won’t hold a car up forever when no one is coming from other directions. In fact, it may even detect that a left turner has arrived at the light and “see” that the only other cars coming from the other direction are so far away that it won’t adversely affect them to give this left turner an unexpected, out-of-turn chance to go.
My favorite set of lights is found at the entrance to our nearest grocery store. They still go through an established pattern, one like this:
- Cars going straight from both directions in the picture above–the right (Richmond) and the left (Ashland)
- Cars turning left (from Richmond) into the grocery store entrance (where the camera is)
- Cars on the opposite side of the intersection from the camera (a mall entrance) going straight or turning right or left
- Cars going straight or turning right or left from the camera’s viewpoint (the grocery store entrance)
- Cars turning left from Ashland into the mall entrance
All nice and tidy. Especially considering that if no cars are turning left into the grocery store, the light logic automatically skips that part of the cycle and gives the people coming from the mall their chance. If nobody trips that sensor, it defaults to people coming out from the grocery store entrance. It’s still an endless loop, but an intelligent one.
And to make things even better, cars never have to wait more than two minutes for the light to cycle back to them. And the absence of right-on-red arrows permits u-turns.
I get tickled at people who go past the sensor and consequently fail to trip the light in their favor.
That’s it, faithful readers. I hope this post hasn’t been so exciting that it’s resulted in a rash of heart attacks. Thanks for letting me share my secret-but-safe fascination with you. How about leaving a comment and sharing one of yours?
P.S. The intersection pictured above is part of a series that–if approached at just the right time at just the right speed–allows the driver to have green lights for the next four or five lights. Depending on the speed of other traffic, of course.
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