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Infrared traffic light changers pose safety problem


Imagine if one or two of every 10 drivers on the road had a device that could change traffic lights in their favor at will? This is a nightmare that public safety and transportation groups are very concerned about following news that a cheap device to do it is now available over the internet.

The technology has been available to some emergency services since the 1970s. Called Mobile Infrared Transmitters (MIRTs), the devices can be mounted on the dash of a vehicle, much like a radar detector, and, at the push of a button, "preempt" the normal cycles of a traffic light and change it in the vehicle's favor.

signal light red Normally limited to emergency vehicles such as fire trucks, the preemption transmitter has a range of about 500 yards (about 450 meters). It sends out an infrared signal which is picked up by a preemption detector mounted on the traffic signal. The traffic signal then drops its normal cycle and offers the vehicle a green light.

Cheaper version

Up to now, these traffic light changers, which have been in use throughout the world for years, have been supplied by well-established companies such as 3M, and they've been expensive and difficult to obtain. The equipment causing all the fuss right now came on the market last January through a Minnesota-based firearms and law-enforcement supply company called FAC of America. The FAC version costs only $500.

FAC says it only supplies the devices to authorized users. However, the regulation of legal users varies state by state and locally. "In general," says an FAC web site statement, "traffic signal preemption is typically approved for use by any department or individual who has legitimate need for such a device for conducting business of an official or emergency nature." It advises would-be purchasers to go to their State's Department of Transportation web site and contact local authorities to learn the details of authorization for their area.

FAC owner Tim Gow said he takes great pains to make sure none of the devices is ever sold to an unauthorized individual, either over his Web site or through a handful of authorized dealers

Despite these precautions, MIRT devices have been offered over the Internet in recent months. One journalist's search for "traffic light changers" on eBay turned up 232 responses. Gow says he has asked eBay to remove these items from its database and this may have worked. A Drivers.com search of eBay returned no items at all. However, a broader web search did bring responses. For example, one web site offers a model that "was taken from an emergency vehicle and works as it should." The asking price? Two hundred dollars!

In a disclaimer, the site states, "This item is for novelty purposes only and user assumes all responsibility for any irresponsible use and for any damages that occur." Interestingly, it quotes the number available as 10, presumably all from emergency vehicles that no longer need them.

Are they legal?

Over the past few weeks these cheaper devices have been causing quite a stir in the media and in public safety and transportation circles. After some intensive research, the Michigan Department of Transportation said infrared traffic light changers available to the public via the Internet are illegal in Michigan. It based its decision on a law dating back to 1949 that prohibits altering a traffic signal. Nevertheless, Michigan Department of Transportation is pushing for tougher penalties.

Most states, it seems, have laws against altering traffic signals. However, it's likely that now, in the light of the threat of widespread use, there will be a scramble to make legislation more specific and toughen penalties.

"It is illegal in Minnesota and in any state I know of for an individual to use this technology to zip through traffic lights," says Tim Gow. "We contacted eBay and indicated that our product name and pictures were being used to sell something on eBay that shouldn't be . . . and as of [Tuesday, Nov. 4] all the items were removed."

Do they work?

Preemption transmitters will only work on traffic signals that have been specially equipped to respond to their signals. Numbers of these vary from state to state, and area to area. For example, only about 40% of the some 900 traffic lights in Minneapolis can be preempted, according to city traffic officials. However, many suburbs have installed the equipment at all of their intersections with lights.

Northern Virginia, has about 100 state-maintained intersections equipped for the devices, but those lights are set to respond to specific frequencies from emergency vehicles, so outside devices would work only if they happened to stumble on to the right frequency.

Maryland, on the other hand, is more vulnerable to interference. The state has an infrared control system on about 1,000 of 3,000 intersections maintained by the state, according to Tom Hicks, director of traffic and safety for the Maryland State Highway Administration.

Macomb County, near Detroit, Michigan, seems to have the situation under control. The county has only six intersections with receivers, and the technology was able to lock out the MIRT on recent tests.

Of approximately 900 intersections in the urban area of Las Vegas, 600 to 700 are equipped with a device that keeps a green light green and switches a red light to green when triggered by police, firefighters and paramedics. "We do have a variety of agencies throughout the valley who all operate and maintain traffic signals," said Niel Rohleder, systems manager for the new Freeway and Arterial System of Transportation (FAST).

Many of the devices being marketed over the Internet may be bogus or make false promises about their effectiveness. However, "People are gullible, and they have discretionary income," says P. David Fisher, professor emeritus of electrical engineering at Michigan State University. "It's a very interesting ethical dilemma. Here are all these gullible people. Why should we protect them? On the other hand, they are causing a number of crashes."

The idea of a national campaign to expose the businesses that sell radar jammers and laser detectors and other devices that, by definition, if they are effective, are illegal, has been discussed at public safety conventions.

Concerns

Las Vegas-area officials are concerned that the switching devices being marketed over the Internet could be used by the public, creating traffic problems for a community already balanced on the edge of gridlock. There's also the possibility that the traffic-light changers that have been distributed to authorized personnel are being used for simple convenience in addition to being used to speed emergency response.
"We do have a variety of agencies throughout the valley -- the city of Las Vegas, North Las Vegas, Clark County and Henderson -- who all operate and maintain traffic signals," said Niel Rohleder.

Rohleder estimates daily use of the switching system in the Las Vegas urban area at 1,200 to 2,200 incidents per day. "The first thing the region needs to do is to gauge the existing level of abuse," he says. Officials from FAST, North Las Vegas and the Regional Transportation Commission are working on the problem now.

Local agencies are upgrading the existing traffic-light preemption system along Las Vegas Boulevard from downtown Las Vegas to Nellis Air Force Base to allow the system to restrict access to the offical Opticom changers.

Unauthorized use of traffic lights changers doesn't seem to be a significant problem - yet. Tim Gow said that he has yet to hear of a single example of inappropriate use. But Steve Misgen, a Minnesota Department of Transportation signal operations engineer, reckons it has the potential to be huge and Minnesota is determined to stay on top of the issue.

"We can record the numbers of preemptions we see at our signals," Misgen says, "and we're going to start doing that to see if there's a problem Ö If we see a pattern where every day at about 3:30 p.m. one particular signal gets preempted, we'll respond appropriately."

In the internet chat groups there's a mix of views and speculations. Some wonder if cheap unofficial knockoffs will appear soon. Others ponder some more wacky possibilities, such as whether laptop infrared ports could be adapted for use as preemption transmitters.

One, more thoughtful comment questioned why such devices were developed using such an accessible system. Perhaps, the comment goes, "it was an attempt at security through obscurity that may now be backfiring. Of course, the answer will be to create new devices that require authorization Ö The bigger issue is which brilliant thinker came up with the idea to use an open system for these devices in the first place?"End of Article

Further comments to this article have been disabled.


All Comments (15)

Showing 1 - 15 comments

htwotheo,

There are too many unnecessary traffic lights, or at least too many that cause problems rather than provide any benefit. It's getting more and more difficult to get to and from work, due to these inefficient traffic light hazards. Then, our local municipalities force taxpayers to purchase expensive camera and ticket traffic light equipment, in order to squeeze even more money out of us all. I have no problem with surveillance cameras at traffic lights. That seems like a good idea, but of course that wouldn't allow our local governments to shake more money out of our empty pockets. When a traffic light causes people to get tickets in the mail for allegedly running the red light, legal or not, that traffic light deserves to be preempted!

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Jorge Jefferson,

While it may be time for some upgrades, any control system that has worked for 40 years without significant problems was not that bad of an design. Early systems required extremely powerful, visible strobes to activate them so abuse was not likely to go unnoticed and unpunished. Even now I doubt there will be much abuse due to the high penalties if caught.

Dave,

There are many, many towns that have set up the lights to keep you in that town, or they are so out of sync it is stupid. Aside from the fact what works on paper does not work in practise. People get tired of this fast as well as dealing with idiots that want to sit for 3-4 seconds after the light has changed or that slow down at green lights and screwing others behind them.
I am definatly going to get one of these.

Don,

where can I purchzse a traffic light changer?

glenn,

To kown what traffic light is meant ot be.show me(glenn)

Kal El,

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