Signals expert questions traffic light switch-off idea | Smart Highways Magazine: Industry News

Signals expert questions traffic light switch-off idea

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Traffic light expert and Smart Highways columnist Mark Pleydell is questioning the Road Safety Minister’s suggestion that roads flow better when traffic lights are switched off.

Andrew Jones said he noticed traffic “flows more freely” when traffic lights are not working in his constituency and told Parliament he would consider a pilot to see if turning lights off would work.

A trial in September 2009 has been highlighted where traffic lights at a busy junction in Portishead were switched off and covered up for four weeks, meaning drivers relied on “courtesy and caution” to navigate the junction, which apparently led to better traffic flow.

But Mark Pleydell, who runs his own consultancy after a lifetime in the industry, said, “we are all familiar with traffic lights at our pedestrian crossings and road junctions.  They help us do what we Brits are often thought to be famous for, they help us queue in a fair and orderly manner.  And, for everyone who drives to and from work, does the school run, or any of those other routine journeys, when the lights are working you don’t notice them, which is exactly as it should be.

“Now think about that turning when you need to turn right out of a small side road onto the busy main road.  If there weren’t traffic lights there you could be stuck for ages waiting for a gap each way, or sticking the bonnet further and further out in desperation to make a gap.  Those lights make your journey safer, they make the time your journey takes more reliable.”
But, he admits, signals go wrong, “They are designed to last 15 years, but the cuts in local government funding often mean that older sets of equipment are patched up and kept going rather then being fully re-furbished.  And when they do go wrong everyone notices, precisely because that previously smooth journey is suddenly disrupted, and of course the queues at one junction cause problems at the neighbouring junctions.
“So before leaping into trials to remove lights, first find out how the traffic is flowing, get the safety data, seek public opinion, confirm that the equipment is working as intended, then by all means remove the lights.  But afterwards get the same information, and find out afterwards how things changed.  Five minutes of casual observation by an MP do not constitute rigorous insight.  Pause a moment and reflect – did this busy MP do any background research, did the paper publish that or even show readers where to find it?”
Furthermore, he suggests another pause to ask whether you want to take the traffic lights away from the crossing outside the primary school on the edge of the village where people drive so fast?  “And do you really think that this and all previous governments would have invested the huge amounts of taxpayer money into developing and researching our transport network, the equipment, and systems if there wasn’t good evidence that these systems improved journey times and journey reliability, helped improve public transport, allowed people to use their own private vehicles to live an independent mobile lifestyle?” he asks, and finishes with a reminder from The Italian Job – “How did Benny Hill and Michael Caine stop the traffic?”
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What is often forgotten in these instances is the need to provide a safe crossing place for pedestrians and vulnerable users. Allowing free traffic flow would increase the risk of danger to these people especially at busier times of the day.

I live in Sittingbourne in Kent & regularly use the A249 trunk road, using the Stockbury roundabout which is the junction with the M2. This roundabout has half of it controlled by traffic lights (24 hours), which causes traffic to queue back on yhe A249 to & sometimes beyond the A2 junction at Sittingbourne. But a few years ago someone crashed into the control cabinet for the lights on the roundabout. It took the HA (then) well over a month to sort it out. This meant that traffic had to give way as at non-signal controlled roundabouts. The traffic flow was much improved & it was disappointing that the highway authority didn’t take the opportunity to monitor the traffic flows & either change the light timings or remove the lights completely!