Red Lights and Robots

Which are worse: smart cameras or dumb traffic lights?

Some of our robots are going to retire next month. Back in September, the News Sentinel reported that—due to a screw-up on the part of FedEx—Redflex, the company that operates the much-maligned red-light cameras around town, lost its contract. It will expire on Nov. 9.

Apparently, Redflex trusted the company whose slogan once was: "When it absolutely positively has to be there overnight." I've made the same mistake, but that's another story. And since the contract didn't make it to the city until after the deadline for responses to the request for proposals, Redflex is out of the game—a game that netted them over $3 million over the past three years. FedEx did, however, refund them the overnight shipping charges.

But don't worry. The city did get a couple of other proposals on time, and will be choosing a new company to replace Redflex. So we'll be getting new robots.

I know a lot of people who don't like the cameras. I once received a citation from one. And sure enough, the video on the Web showed my car running right through the light at Summit Hill and Broadway. I wasn't driving it that day. But it was definitely my car.

Me? I don't particularly care one way or another about the robot cameras. We've been using robots to control traffic for a lot longer than the cameras have been around. Traffic lights have been with us in America for almost a hundred years. And anyone who has sat at one in the middle of the night with nary a car in sight knows that they're not very smart robots.

They just do what they're told. Most of them flip from red to green based on whatever timing some human told them to use. Some of the smarter ones can sense the presence of cars (not bicycles, mind you), and then they do whatever some human told them to do when there's a car waiting (but not a bicycle).

Then along came the red-light camera robots, which, working in cahoots with the red lights themselves, began serving as witnesses against those who failed to obey the traffic-signal robots. We never really had any of those in downtown, except along Henley Street and Broadway.

But we do have us some traffic lights. Oh, yes we do. There's a confusing army of them at Union Avenue and Gay Street. For some reason known only to the city's traffic engineering department, there are four traffic signals, about 45 feet apart at that intersection for each lane of traffic on Gay Street—a total of eight for a single cross street.

Granted, Union Avenue is slightly offset from one side of Gay to the other. But that still doesn't explain why there are two sets of lights. There is the standard sign that reads "STOP HERE ON RED." But exactly which red? It's pretty easy to slip beneath one while it's yellow only to catch the red on the second—or run it.

Despite the redundancy in the signals, they probably get ignored more than any others downtown. I've seen vehicles run them in chains of three or four. (I'm looking at you, Knoxville Area Transit.) I guess it's just as easy to run two lights as one. But the sheer number of lights at that intersection causes drivers confusion.

It's also the only intersection in downtown where the lights have a pedestrian phase programmed into them. Once, each cycle, all of the robot signals turn red for traffic and let pedestrians have free range of the intersection. That's due to the offset. And without that phase, people on foot would never have a clear shot at crossing the east side of Union, due to vehicles either turning from Gay or those negotiating the dogleg to cross it.

For whatever fans there are out there of the cameras, there is good news. According to the News Sentinel report, Capt. Gordon Catlett, who oversees the program, says the new contract could allow expansion of the program to up to 10 more locations. In the meantime, Redflex, who owns the current robots, will have to remove theirs.

Catlett said he hasn't figured out where to place the additional ones. It might not set any new records for citations, but I'd suggest sticking a pair at Summit Hill and Gay Street. That intersection doesn't get the number of light runners that Union does (where it's two for one!). But if it will induce drivers to stop where they're supposed to, and not on the crosswalk, it would be worth it for pedestrians.

So fare thee well, Redflex! You got yours. So long. Adios. Ta-ta. And let me be the first to welcome our newest crop of robot overlords!