- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 20, 2003


For those of you who were wondering what the heck all that stuff is these days on traffic light poles, we're happy to provide a little primer.

Just in time, too. There's three or four sets of traffic lights with arrows, solid colors and directions to do everything but change the baby. You have some sort of little periscope looking thing. There's a flat piece of metal. A remote controlled traffic camera is mounted on quite a few of these poles. What's it all for?

We won't attempt to explain the traffic lights themselves in this installment. It turns out that the "back office" of traffic signals is very interesting, very complex and worthy of a separate column.

That little periscope-looking affair is an emergency vehicle right of way sensor. Now you might have noticed emergency vehicles all have strobe lights on one of their top-front surfaces. The strobe, at a particular frequency of flashing, activates the sensor on the traffic signal pole and turns the lights green in favor of the emergency vehicle. Now don't get any ideas. Local governments would take a very — excuse the pun — dim view of those who would try to use a phony emergency strobe.

That flat piece of metal? We were once told, with a straight face, that it was a solar collector designed to recharge batteries to operate the signal in the event of a power failure. Nope. We were also told that it was a wind stabilizer. Bzzzzt! Wrong again! Turns out it's nothing more than a stinking street sign for the airborne. See? We already have signs for flying cars.

Two types of cameras often perch on traffic signal poles. The first type is a remote-controlled pan, tilt, zoom camera intended to monitor traffic situations and weather conditions. Now and again, camera footage comes to the rescue in the event of a crash. The operator can see the situation, call out the proper authorities, and do it all before someone thinks to dial 911.

As a high-tech bonus, many localities share the traffic camera video with the public via the Web. You can check for a jam and be your own traffic reporter. The other type camera frequently found here is designed to capture red light runners. It's a fixed focus camera triggered by traffic passing underneath when traffic shouldn't be.

In either case, Big Brother is watching. So behave yourself, and forget about "mooning" the cameras. Remember, they take tag numbers.

(Comments? Questions? Go to [email protected] )



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