Traffic Signal Countdown Timers
December 26, 2017
In a recent study conducted by Oregon State University, traffic signal countdown timers—known as TSCTs—were shown to improve driver decision-making and traffic safety, reducing the chances of a car accident. Using a driver simulator, the OSU team of researchers studied 55 drivers in 1,100 intersection situations. Half of the drivers in the study used a green signal countdown timer that told them how much time was left before their green traffic signal turned to a yellow traffic signal. Drivers using the traffic signal countdown timers were more likely to decrease their acceleration slowly when approaching the traffic light and were less likely to accelerate to try and beat the light change.
Approximately 24 countries around the globe use traffic signal countdown timers, but the U.S. Department of Transportation prohibits their use in the United States. According to the lead researcher in the OSU study, U.S. engineers say that inconsistencies in the information provided to drivers can lead to confusion and actually cause more car accidents. There were 37,000 traffic deaths in the United States in 2016, with 20 percent of these happening in intersections with traffic lights. There are an estimated 300,000 such intersections across the country.
The problem with intersections is that drivers face what is known in the industry as “dilemma zones,” which is an area wherein the driver is unsure whether to accelerate or decelerate before a traffic light turns from yellow to red. TSCTs begin counting down during the last ten seconds of a yellow light. Drivers with this information were more likely to slow down when approaching the intersection instead of speeding up to beat the light. This significantly improved the safety at the intersections studied using the driver simulators.
The TSCTs work best in intersections with heavy pedestrian traffic and low vehicle speeds. These intersections typically have fixed time signals that can use the ten second countdown. In actuated traffic lights, the traffic signals automatically change within four seconds, which would not be sufficient time to help a driver make a safe decision. Pedestrian countdown timers are used in many cities in the United States and have reduced pedestrian accidents. Walkers and bicycle riders crossing intersections using pedestrian countdown timers can decide if they have enough time to safely cross the street within the ten seconds remaining before the traffic signal changes.
As more countries around the world become aware of the safety benefits of traffic signal countdown timers, automakers are starting to respond to the data. New 2017 vehicles in the German Audi fleet are featuring onboard traffic signal countdown timers that appear on the vehicle instrument panels. The U.S. has approved the use of these onboard TSCTs.
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