Pulling out the stops from traffic lights

June 24, 2009

yellowLight

I think yellow lights at traffic signals are underrated. We damn the red light and turn the same color when we’re stuck at one too long, and we cheer if we’ve whizzed through a succession of green signals without nary a stop. But the yellow light gets stuck in this state of ambiguity reflecting its pale color.

The yellow light is important because it’s the go-between — the middle man, if you will — of the red and green lights. Without it, driving amounts to a series of abrupt surprises. We’d never anticipate when green turns to red, forcing motorists to stop on a dime. And that means a whole lot of worn-out brake pads, fender benders (or worse) and overtime for our car insurance agents.

Or, it could mean one just blows through the red light, gets caught on the police camera and opens their mailbox to find a nice big fat ticket with incriminating photo attached.

Before taking all this into consideration, my first thoughts to the county grand jury’s examination of one yellow light in particular left me thinking that they’ve run out of things to investigate. But one intersection in Downtown Ventura — namely, Thompson and California streets — has a yellow light that stays illuminated just a second too short, grand jurors say.

It’s enough time, they say, for the red light-running scenario to happen all too often: people don’t have enough time to stop, the camera does its job, and as a result, 38 percent of the Ventura P.D.’s tally for red light violations in 2008 were at that intersection.

So why not just tack on a second to the yellow light? Apparently, it causes another problem. City transportation officials say adding that second takes away a second in duration from the green light. That means less time to go, more time stopped, and more traffic congestion. And we all know how backed up traffic can get around here.

What’s crazy is that instead of tinkering with the damn light and/or contriving some traffic mitigation measures, officials have actually considered building another off-ramp from the freeway as an alternative to divert traffic.

Of course, the source of the story, our daily paper, mentions nothing of how much that could cost. But you can be sure it’ll cost a coupla million more than dispatching a public works engineer to tweak the timing of the light.

None of this, mind you, takes into account people’s lousy driving skills in Southern California, where green means go, yellow means go faster, and red means it’s Indy 500 time.

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