November 25, 2002
Red Light Special

There are things in life you simply never question, habits so deeply ingrained you never even realize they're just habits. Take underwear, for instance. Initially just a way of keeping the dirtier parts of our anatomy wrapped up in small, easy-to-wash packages, it was made obsolete decades ago with the development of the mechanical washing machine and dryer. And yet I still sit here wearing a pair of whitey-tighties underneath my work clothes. Oh, people might say comfort or safety has something to do with it, but if we can design headwear for cats what's keeping us from designing a pair of jeans that won't grab Abbot & Costello on the zip up?

Societies have these sorts of built-in assumptions as well. Traffic lights, for example. These devices rule our everyday lives, and yet we never once question how patently ridiculous they are. A gizmo that only recently acquired the smarts of a meth-addled gerbil can simply switch one colored light off and another on and thousands of people will instantly move to obey its commands. Folks who are quite convinced the government is only prevented from deploying mind control because its top leader would point the thing at himself (would we be able to tell the difference?) will calmly obey traffic signals, never once seeing the connection.

And how slavish is our dedication in obeying our tryclopsian masters! How many of you out there have sat at a red light, not a soul to be seen, and patiently waited for it to turn green? How many of you have sat for minutes at a time waiting for a left turn arrow without any cross-traffic facing you? How many times have you felt shocked and indignant during those rare instances when you witnessed someone else defying your tricolored god?

All this might be taken as me becoming an advocate of ripping these triple-eyed beasts from their perches, storming the Bastilles that lie on every corner in every town in America and hurling their heartless guardians into the crackling flames. Vive la traffic! Unfortunately, you're wrong.

Because every one of us knows the real reason for traffic lights is not to prevent us from making our daily rounds, but rather to protect us from mouth-breathing morons who turn our streets and highways into a Jerry Springer show on wheels. Closely examining a modern traffic light is like opening up a "traffic control for dummies" book:

  • Put one light in front of each lane, because we want be sure and stop the ones who would assume it didn't apply to the entire intersection.
  • Be sure to put two lights up if there's just one lane, because lord knows that shoulder sure looks inviting.
  • Left turn arrows are good because letting them control their own destiny turns an intersection into a multi-ton game of chicken.
  • Make sure to hood every light so we'll stop the ones who assume any green light is their green light.
  • Put big black borders around every one you can, because three or four really bright red lights shining right in their faces probably won't provide enough contrast for them to notice.
  • Be sure to leave the lights red in all directions for a few seconds each cycle to stop the people who think taking advantage of their legal right to the intersection entitles them to put someone else in the hospital.

And even this isn't enough. There was one intersection near our old apartment that had a giant strobe light that flashed in one direction whenever the light controlling that direction turned red. It took me biking past the place for a few weeks before I realized there weren't any cameras that needed assistance, it was just to get people to notice the light was turning red. In our new neighborhood they've replaced all the incandescent bulbs with huge LED arrays that look like a lite-brite set on a stick just to make sure that last one on the cell phone will have their retinas burned through before they can get across the intersection.

They didn't set these and untold numbers of other weird devices up just because they looked pretty, or needed something to do that day (this is the highway department after all). They were put there because it was needed to keep morons from putting you in the hospital. The modern traffic light is if nothing else a concrete-and-steel monument to Rich Cook's famous saying:

"Programming today is a race between software engineers striving to build bigger and better idiot-proof programs, and the Universe trying to produce bigger and better idiots. So far, the Universe is winning."

So while I think a colored light's ability to make someone sit still at an intersection in the middle of an empty night is a little surreal, I do see its utility. I will, however, reserve the right as a responsible grownup to occasionally take the law into my own hands and treat traffic lights as stop signs when it's safe to do so.

I will also make sure I'm wearing clean underwear. You know, in case I get into an accident or something.

Posted by scott at November 25, 2002 03:20 PM

eMail this entry!

I never sit and wait patiently for anything. I may sit and wait but not patiently. There are two traffic lights on my way home from work, yes I go a different route to and from. I run those two lights every morning. A policeman, on occasion, is parked near by. He usually waves when he sees the look on my face when I spot him. LOL One of these days he will be in a bad mood and I will be toast.

Posted by: Pat on November 25, 2002 08:11 PM !!!

Posted by: Nina on November 25, 2002 08:59 PM

Try Bach... patience on a disc. :-)

Posted by: Lynn on November 26, 2002 07:56 PM

You think a traffic light controls your driving life. Wait until that baby gets here. Babies control EVERYTHING, even take over from the lights when you are on your way to the emergency room with a sick baby.
Lights, smights!

Posted by: Cindy on November 27, 2002 01:54 AM
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