Do Smarter Traffic Signals Mean Fewer Accidents?


Anyone who has had to sit through rush-hour traffic knows that it can be one of the most exhausting, dangerous, and expensive times to drive. The evening commute, between 5:00 and 7:00 p.m., is one of the most hazardous times of the day to drive–as this article in Forbes points out. However, South Carolina commuters are better off during this time than many of their counterparts across the nation, with an average drive time of just 23 minutes.

S.C. drivers may also have another reason to feel better about their commutes–in addition to a better trip time, the price of gasoline is lower today than one year ago, according to a recent article in The State. Some experts predict that prices at the pump may not rise for a while, which could be music to the ears (and wallets) of the nearly 2 million drivers who hit the road to commute in South Carolina.

However, there could be even better news for approximately 81,000 of those commuters, with the announcement of a $1.5 million Lexington plan to ease traffic along U.S. 1, U.S. 378 and S.C. 6. According to the article, traffic jams of over a mile are common along those road corridors during commute times. Such heavy traffic can lead some drivers to aggressive behavior, such as running red lights or tailgating–which can then mean more accidents. The latest plan is an effort by Lexington officials to improve traffic, and it focuses on installing a computerized signal system to control traffic flow–in contrast to an earlier, $80 million plan which focused on road construction.

The federal government favors computerized signal systems as a way to improve commutes and reduce accidents. According to an article in Public Roads, the magazine of the Federal Highway Administration (FHA), the computerized systems may help reduce the danger during the commute by helping to reduce the number of accidents. The FHA says that automatic signal systems can lead to improvements for drivers and cities, including:

  • Fewer serious or deadly accidents.
  • Less aggressive driver behavior, like red-light running or tailgating.
  • Better air quality and less gas use.
  • Less heavy traffic and better flow for commercial and emergency vehicles, buses, and the public.
  • Delayed or no need for road expansion or construction.

There are a few different ways to modify signal systems, each with different levels of computer control. A city can pick the kinds of controls that fit its traffic and commute needs, according to FHA information. The systems aren’t a complete fix for traffic problems and accidents, however. Many deadly accidents still occur in rural areas, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, where such traffic control systems aren’t operating. Additionally, the FHA recommends updating and adjusting systems every 2-3 years, and the cost can swing from as little as $300 per year to almost $3,000 per signal.

The Lexington system is expected to be up and running by the fall of 2013, and will cover about two dozen intersections in the downtown area–where the busiest routes intersect. Whether the systems will help make commute times safer and reduce the number of deadly or serious traffic accidents remains to be seen. It will be interesting to see if the numberof rear-ending or red-light running accidents is affected by the new signals. Until then, area drivers will have to find other ways to stay aware of and avoid aggressive drivers (and the accidents they cause) during commute times.


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