Exhausting my patience

MassDOT recently gave the town of Belmont several expensive new sets of traffic signals.

Thanks, MassDOT, for making me wait a minute to walk 20 feet across a side street with no traffic.

In the world of prescriptive traffic control, you walk when a computer says you can walk. The non-existent cross traffic had a red light and no traffic was turning onto the street. The computer still didn’t think I should cross. I pressed the button to wake it up — although it shouldn’t have needed awakening — and it still didn’t think I should cross.

The decision to delay pedestrians must have been made by the same person who decided to post “no turn on red” at another new traffic signal down the street. There wasn’t any engineering study supporting the decision (I asked). He thought that you shouldn’t be able to go at all except when the computer thought you should go.

Did he think the wait wouldn’t be long? The traffic detectors are still shiny and new. In time they will break and the town won’t fix them, and traffic will back up because it is illegal to make a right turn on unnecessarily long red. Just because way back in 2016, somebody said “my signals are great, why would they want to go before I let them?”

A confession here. I said I waited. I didn’t say I got a walk signal. I pressed the button, waited 45 seconds, and then crossed against the light because I had no reason to believe it would ever change. It still hadn’t offered a walk light after a minute and 10 seconds as I walked away.

This is what happens when you design stupid traffic control devices. People ignore them. Speed limits, stop signs, don’t walk signals. Maybe self-driving cars and robotic pedestrians of the future will sit and wait forever. Real humans don’t.

There is a serious lack of attention to human factors at the small scale. The government spent millions studying the font on big highways signs and reflectivity standards. When it comes down to the question “how will people react to this sign” few people take a moment to think and most of those don’t care.

The great thing about designing a rule to be ignored is it lets you off the hook if anything goes wrong. He was jaywalking, speeding, running a stop sign, and you knew he would and you knew you wouldn’t get blamed.

When Congress was still pushing the 55 mph speed limit on states, highway aid was supposed to be cut if too many people drove over 55.

We need a similar rule for judging traffic control schemes. If your sign or signal is routinely disobeyed, you fail. You lose your PE license or city council job, as the case may be.

These aren’t toys you’re playing with.

The opinions expressed in this post belong to the author and do not necessarily represent those of the National Motorists Association or the NMA Foundation. This content is for informational purposes and is not intended as legal advice. No representations are made regarding the accuracy of this post or the included links.

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