Image Credit: Coolcaesar at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
It had to be easier back in the days of horse-drawn buggies and even the early days of automobiles. There were fewer traffic laws, fewer vehicles in total, fewer accidents, and there had to have been way fewer traffic jams. In those days, people were called upon to use their own common sense, coupled with common courtesy, and learn to navigate safely with each other.
My how times have changed. The proliferation of vehicle ownership has led to overcrowded roadways and drivers who needed much more than common sense and courtesy to keep everyone safe and accident-free. Along the way, traffic lights became a very important tool for increasing safety on the roads.
According to an article in the International Business Times, the first traffic light system was actually used in the 1800s to help manage the growing flow of the aforementioned horse-drawn buggies. London saw its first signal light in 1868 to help provide pedestrians a safe trip across the street. Technology has definitely progressed since the first lights. Late in the 1860s a gas light was used with red and green lenses, which an officer who decided when vehicles should stop or go manually changed them.
A policeman in Utah developed the first electric traffic light in 1912, and the first electric signal installed for use was in Cleveland in 1914. Six years later, a third color light was added, and the four-way signal was developed and put into use by another police officer in Detroit.
Since then, there have been many improvements and adaptations to traffic lights. Many of those advancements have been in regard to enhancing the use of those traffic lights to provide a smoother and safer driving experience. Computers being integrated into the mix really provided a jump in the ability to manage traffic lights and control traffic flow. Many traffic light intersections manage the flow of traffic using pressure plates and/or in-ground induction loops to detect vehicles and determine when to change lights to accommodate the vehicles on the road.
Many municipalities determine the timing of lights on their own, based on the needs of those driving in their cities. This usually means one of two things:
Once a light is triggered to change, there is a pre-determined length that light will stay green, and the others stay red.
Some lights are solely on a timed basis that might be different at particular times of day, which depends on typical traffic flow.
A problem with both of these approaches is that traffic isn’t always typical. While there are natural ebbs and flows, there are also aberrations and outliers that must be accounted for. It tends to be easier for city and traffic managers, but it doesn’t always serve the drivers well.
Today, thanks to the use of cameras, we’re seeing a new advancement in traffic light control and overall traffic flow. Bringing cameras into the mix provides a cost-effective alternative to those options, which are cut into the pavement.
Camera technology is currently being looked at as the future of traffic lights. The ultimate goal is to have live cameras orchestrating the flow of traffic based solely on how many cars are at the intersection. This would allow for real time adjustments, and not having huge lines of vehicles at one red light while the other directions are void of any vehicles. St. Louis, MO is a city currently utilizing cameras, and looking forward to future growth.
As it is with most every technological breakthrough or advancement, the purpose behind extending the use of cameras in traffic light control is the betterment of the driving experience. Safety is always concern number one, and avoiding frustrations for drivers is one way to help keep all drivers safer. If camera technology can continue to advance, we could eventually see much safer and smoother driving through light intersections. And I hope that can give you a little hope on your drive home this evening.
Justin is a contributing author who loves to read and write about the advancements of technology and robotics. When not at work, you can find him conquering Risk and Catan or on an adventure with his wife and kids. Last Father's Day he received a #1 dad shirt, so now that's official.