Traffic Lights, The Hated Holiday Lights

If you’re like many Americans, you’ve sat at traffic lights way too long. Of course it gets worse this time of year due to holiday traffic especially near shopping venues. With all of the happy displays of pleasurable lights, traffic lights have the opposite effect as they are pretty much hated. As we look into how this blog developed, realize that there sixteen reference files open on my computer as I write about traffic lights. I will only be referencing the relevant websites to avoid my editor having to research every link. However, only one, Reference 4, talks specifically about the intelligence and the future of interactive traffic control. No date of origin was provided for Reference 4. Judging by the references in Reference 4, this subject hasn’t hit the popular search terms for a decade as none are newer than 2008.

As with many subjects, I have come across several interesting little tidbits to share with my readers. Therefore, I’ll be splitting this blog into this intro, control technology, and the actual lights themselves along with the associated technology. Along the way, there is some interesting history and control logic, or lack thereof as you may have already guessed.

The origin of this article is an intersection that reeks of intelligence. On one corner, there is a long standing HP facility, part of which became an Agilent, then that part became an Avago as businesses were sold and resold. On another corner there is an Intel building that was once a Celestica board stuffer plant until those jobs all got outsourced. In reality, the Intel plant is the spun-off version of HP’s old microprocessor division. On a third corner is an AMD “office”. This of course is because HP’s workstation business is located here so AMD has to have a presence as does Intel. Or maybe it’s just because the intersection is located in an area that the American dream of home ownership is still possible.

By now you’re probably envisioning a corner in San Jose. It’s not, it’s in Colorado. Behind the AMD building sits a shopping complex with a minor cross street light for secondary traffic. Herein lies the problem.

The side street light would trigger red immediately after the main intersection light allowed traffic through. As a result, the main flow would be cut off each and every cycle of the major intersection. One day I counted over sixty cars waiting on the main road while two crossed from the side street.

One would think that this intersection, that was built this century by the way, would reflect the intelligence of the surrounding businesses. Further that with the fact that this exit is the first main exit for Fort Collins residents returning from the interstate that runs into Denver and you have a major thoroughfare for evening commuters. Suffice it to say it didn’t have any logic, until I brought it to the attention of the traffic controller that the side street was backing up the main flow.

The controller’s response was, “I wasn’t aware of that.”

Ya think? Dude, just because you go home from that civil government job at five doesn’t mean traffic stops. Most of it doesn’t show up until after 6 PM due to the hour or six gridlock from Denver, which also is a problem of its own. Fortunately the light’s timing got fixed and the traffic flowed better. The light still lacks logic.

While researching these blogs, there was a lot that surfaced about how traffic lights are timed, triggered, or a combination thereof. The logic, if you can call it that, is based on the location of the light in terms of how busy an intersection is. As you can well imagine, things are a tad bit archaic in terms of technology and control. Why would the world’s most advanced society invest new technology for their own betterment when there are pockets to line to flailing societies and cronies of polish-ticians? Sit and wait. It’s the American way. Both parents need to sit and wait. After all, it takes two incomes to afford a home these days, especially in million-dollar per bedroom Californication.

I’ll close this blog by presenting a few of my findings as to how we got here in the first place. The first traffic control device was supposedly implemented in England in 1868. It wasn’t until 1914 that the first patented electric traffic light was installed (See Reference 1). However, there was another reference to a 1912 version by a Utah police officer. Incidentally, the date of August 4, 1914 shares the traffic light being installed in Detroit with the same date in 1858 when the first transatlantic telegraph cable was completed. Therefore, this month/day in history set society ahead temporarily and behind permanently.

Image courtesy of History of traffic lights

Reference 3 provides more insight on traffic light evolution from gas lights to electric lights. Because this is an electrical engineering website, I’d rather focus on the electronics by enabling readers to create frustration first hand. If you want to make your own traffic light, I’m sure it’s very simple with some basic programming and a few driver transistors, resistors, or an LED controller. Or else you could use old leaded components as outlined on this website titled, “Traffic Light Control Electronic Project using IC 4017 & 555 Timer”, Electrical Technology 10/02/2014 (See Reference 5). Perhaps this will keep the kids busy making a hindrance rather than being a hindrance while on break. They’ll have to program their own interruption. Maybe they’ll “get it” that interruptions are a hassle. Then again, maybe we’ll get intelligent traffic control. I’ll wager neither is possible.


  1. website, no other information provided, First electric traffic signal installed
  2. History of traffic lights
  3. The Guardian, Who invented traffic lights and where were the first ones situated?
  4. How Audi’s Travolution Device Will Work, BY ROBERT LAMB howstuffworks website, no date given
  5. Traffic Light Control Electronic Project using IC 4017 & 555 Timer, Electrical Technology 10/02/2014

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