Catching all the green lights on a daily commute is a rare occurrence, since Southern California usually has a healthy flow of bad traffic. However, motorists are noticing they get stuck at red lights for long periods in the evening even when streets are empty.
Faulty traffic lights can mean the difference between waiting a normal and tolerable 30 seconds before getting green lights and being stuck at red lights for minutes at a time.
One such driver is 21-year-old communication disorders major, Danielle Hebrona. Hebron has had trouble with traffic lights in the Fullerton and Anaheim area. She has even said to have tried moving her car in order to trigger a green light by resetting her car position.
“I’ve been sitting in light around (Fullerton), and sometimes they won’t turn (green),” said Hebron. “I’ve had to back up and try to set off the sensor. Sometimes that will work and sometimes that won’t… It usually happens late at night.”
Hebron mentioned the longest she has waited for a traffic light to change has been “well over five minutes.” Hebron also said she has had to run red lights in certain situations when the traffic light is stuck on red.
The major problem these trapped drivers have noticed is that the occurrence of these malfunctions can happen when there are no other vehicles on the road.
Jane Keely, associate engineer for the City of Anaheim, said she is familiar with the late night sensor problems with traffic lights since the city is subjected to the same complaints on a somewhat regular basis.
Keely mentioned that getting stuck at a red light can range from the car not being recognized by a traffic sensor, a failed or faulty sensor or even having a longer wait time due driving on a minor street.
When traffic lights run normally throughout the day there is a set amount of time for each direction, which Keely calls “coordination,” since it manages each lane to have a safe amount of time for a green light to keep traffic at a minimum.
In the middle of the night, the traffic sensor coordination might not always be active in certain areas, so traffic lights instead have a set time in place based on if the street is residential or a major city street. If drivers get stuck at these lights for minutes at a time, Keely said there is usually a problem with the sensors on the street.
“You shouldn’t have to stop, at least not for two to three minutes,” said Keely. “If there is an issue with the detection, that could be one of the reasons why you’re sitting on the red light when no one is there. Typically if it’s in the middle of the night, it’s an equipment failure.”
While some might wonder why a weight sensor is not detecting their car, the problem might be a little more complex since it could be a defect, a minimum of weight not being met or problems with a video sensor.
David “Dr. Roadmap” Rizzo is a former transportation commissioner for the City of Fullerton as well as a former weekly commuter columnist for several print news publications. He said the cost of maintenance on traffic sensors could be one of the main reasons that these problems persist.
Rizzo also said some sensors are no longer weight based, but instead triggered by a video camera. So while the weight based sensors are better at detecting traffic, they are also expensive to install and maintain. Video sensors are less expensive alternatives, but Rizzo claimed they are not as accurate as the weight, or “loop,” sensors.
However, Rizzo also mentioned that new technology is not always infallible and even said he prefers older traffic lights based off timers instead of weight and video sensors.
“From a perspective of being in the traffic business for 25 years,” said Rizzo, “I’ve seen technology come and go. Every ten years I go to meetings at Caltrans… and every 10 years there is a new (sensor) that is supposed to work better. In my opinion, we could have saved millions or billions of dollars if we just stuck with the old (traffic timers).”