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Countdown

August 2011
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Among the things you get to observe at signalized intersections are the behavior of drivers given the setting of the traffic lights. While the cyclic transition from red to green to amber and then to red again seems routine and possibly trivial to many, it is an opportunity for traffic engineers to examine how drivers react to the lights. Among the most notable behavior are common violations like beating the red light and occupying the area within the yellow box despite full awareness that the exit is already full.

Then there are the not so obvious but risky habit of some drivers to beat the green light. That’s when a driver anticipates the green light and proceeds to move prior to the signal and before the intersection is clear of any vehicles or pedestrians that may have been caught in the change in signals. It is a practice that increases the probability of a road crash occurring as the clearance interval for vehicles whose paths may be in conflict is drastically reduced. This is a habit of many drivers who are familiar with the sequence of signals at an intersection and who know when its their turn for the green light.

In most cases, drivers and pedestrians are unaware of the length of time available for them to cross the street or intersection. There are no indications for when the lights will change and only familiarity would allow for drivers or pedestrians to estimate when it would be their turn to proceed. In Japan, many intersections play music during that tends to speed up when the signal will be changing. This audible indicator allows for both the blind and the busy to know whether it is safe to cross the street and if there is enough time to do so. It is also something that is probably taught to children for them to more easily know when it is safe for them to cross the street.

There is another innovation to traffic signals that is surely welcome to pedestrians and motorists alike but which may also have its disadvantages. I am referring to the countdown timer, which provides road users the information about the lengths of green and red signals (Note: Amber or yellow is usually fixed at 3 seconds.).  From the perspective of energy efficiency, such information may allow motorists to turn off their engines, usually done when one practices eco-driving, resulting in fuel savings. Meanwhile, drivers of vehicles approaching an intersection may be able to tell if there is enough time for them to do so, and if there isn’t enough time they may be able to slow down their vehicles to stop at the next red light. Countdown timers may also be a helpful tool for enforcement as the timers establish that a driver should be aware of the time. Thus, a driver can no longer reason with the apprehending officer that he/she was not aware of the remaining time for movement.

Pedestrians may also benefit from the knowledge of available time to make a safe crossing. This information should ultimately reduce the need for running in order to completely cross the street. The photo below shows the new countdown timer installed for the southbound through movement at the Katipunan Avenue (C5) – C.P. Garcia Avenue intersection.

One possible disadvantage would be that aggressive drivers may still try to beat the red light by speeding up upon knowing what amount of time is available for them. Another disadvantage relates to beating the green light as even those unfamiliar with the signal sequence will have the information of how much time remains before they can proceed. Thus, many driver and riders start revving up their engines and push on their gears to anticipate the green signal. You can even imagine the countdown timer being used as if it were ticking towards to start of a race.

Despite the disadvantages mentioned, countdown timers should prove to be more beneficial than detrimental in most situations. In fact, countdown timers like the ones already installed at intersections in Bonifacio Global City should enhance traffic safety provided that these devices are fully complemented by enforcers who would flag down motorists and pedestrians who would attempt risky actions in relation to the timing device. Of course, from the research perspective there needs to be a scientific assessment of the actual impacts of countdown timers much like the studies already conducted elsewhere to determine and even measure the effects of these devices on both motorists and pedestrians. Only then can we truly say if they do enhance safety and promote more efficient operations at a signalized intersection.


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