We’ve all been there: approaching the stale green light. How long has it been green? Will it still be green when I get to that intersection? Should I speed up? Slow down? Wait, now it’s yellow, but stopping fast on this wet street might send me skidding. What’s my play, here?
And we’ve all done it: mashed the gas and hoped there’s no red-light camera. Or a car entering the intersection, which is way worse. Or we might mash the gas only to have the light turn yellow and then red in front of our very eyes, so we mash the brake pedal, engage the shuddering, juddering ABS, and hope there isn’t anyone riding our bumper right then.
You might think that adding a countdown to traffic signals would make the problem worse—I’ve only got four seconds to make this green light! But as it turns out, it makes intersections safer. Drivers don’t have to guess anymore, so they generally slow down or maintain a safe speed, depending on what the countdown is telling them.
Become Captain Slow
Oregon State University studied drivers’ behavior with and without a traffic signal countdown timer in a simulator. (Why a simulator? Because TSCTs, as the nerds call them, are illegal in the United States.) They set it to count down the last ten seconds of a green light before it turned yellow.
The result? Drivers slowed down earlier and more gently. They were less likely to try to beat the light. They were, in a word, safer.
This matters because in 2016, approximately 7,500 traffic fatalities occurred at intersections, according to David Hurwitz, transportation engineering researcher in OSU’s College of Engineering and one of the study’s authors.
Hurwitz also noted in a press release that these countdown timers work better at fixed-time signals, the kind that change on a regular schedule. Signals that depend on sensing cars that are waiting at the intersection often change too quickly for a countdown timer to be useful.
Red Light, Ready Light
If you’re wondering about the opposite scenario—a red-light timer—an OSU study published in 2016 has your answer: it’s better too. That study found that the first car in line at an intersection gets going nearly a second faster with a countdown than without it. Pick that song, put away that chapstick, get your hands on the wheel. You know how long you have to get your shit together before the light turns green, so you do it.
This also matters because it makes intersections more efficient. Every second a car is using its fuel—gasoline, electric, or old french fry grease—to move rather than idle is a win for fuel efficiency.
Try This at Home
But this life-saving, time-saving, fuel-saving innovation is illegal in the United States. Or is it. There’s of course a tech workaround. You can just put the countdown timer inside the car. If a city’s traffic light system is compatible, there are apps and vehicles that put the timer on the screen in the dashboard or center console.
I’ve used EnLighten, an app that works with BMW‘s infotainment system and Portland’s traffic lights. It’s very easy to get used to having that information and very hard to go back to guessing. It also works with Apple and Android phones, though it would also have to work with your city’s traffic system. There’s no info on the company’s website, but the app is free to download, so maybe give it a go. If it works, you can wow the hell out of your friends with your early adopter ways.