Letters to the Editor

Federal Way's smart traffic cameras seem so stupid | Letters

I agree with Mr. Jarvis about the errant operation of speed zone traffic cameras ("City ignores malfunctions in photo enforcement," letters).

On Presidents Day, the southbound camera at Panther Lake on 1st Avenue South was flashing away and the yellow lights were not. While I didn’t witness an accident, it would have been a small miracle if there were none. Drivers were reacting to the surprise camera flashes with abrupt maneuvers.

Problems notwithstanding, I’m still all for camera traffic enforcement of both speed and traffic signal compliance.

But, in addition to the yellow flashing light problem in school zones, there is another problem we need to address.

While I strongly support the red light cameras, I also understand the frustration drivers experience with traffic signals.

Here’s an example from earlier this year. I was at the front of a group of about 12 vehicles southbound on 1st Avenue from the light at 320th Street. As the group came to 325th Street, an eastbound vehicle approached and the “smart” traffic signal brought all 12 of us to a halt to let the crossing vehicle go immediately.

The sensors aren’t far enough back from the signal to understand that vehicles are approaching (at the speed limit, I might add). Instant gratification for the driver on 325th Street and mind-numbing for those of us on the arterial.

That process repeated itself for vehicles at 330th Street, 333rd Street, 336th Street, the Winco driveway and for a pedestrian at the BPA trail.

In each case, the traffic signals had no idea of the approach of the large group of southbound vehicles and changed — bringing the entire group to an abrupt stop.

By the time the remaining vehicles reached the already red signal at 348th Street, it had taken more than double the normal travel time.

There’s no excuse for allowing busy schedules to affect our compliance with traffic laws, but the frustration is understandable.

Synchronizing the traffic signals is one possible alternative, but that too has issues. I’m tempted to pen a letter something like: De’r Mist’r Traffik Engn’r, Why is that your “smart” traffic signals seem so stuuuupid? Sincerely, Worn Out Brakes.

If you talk to a traffic engineer about synchronizing signal lights, the normal response is that it’s prohibitively expensive. Witness the request for bids on fiber optic cable for traffic control that appeared in legal notices earlier this year.

I will admit to being a little long of tooth, but it wasn’t this way in the days of “dumb” traffic lights. For example, there was a 2-mile stretch of arterial (Atlantic Avenue, Freeport, N.Y.) with about 10 synchronized dumb traffic lights.  Most drivers knew that if you drove the speed limit plus or minus about 2 mph, you would miss at most one traffic signal.

As I drove through early one morning, there was a worker at one of the lights holding a clipboard with the control box open.

Being a curious pup, I stopped to investigate. He was adjusting the traffic signal timing for each light from a known matrix. I was surprised to learn that the synchronization was for three crossing north/south arterials as well at the east/west road I was traveling. He said it took him just over an hour to re-time all the signals and that it was a monthly process.

In today’s dollars, that would be about $120 (labor and overhead) a month or $1,440 a year. You could probably synchronize a lot of signals for the price of one fiber cable supporting one intersection.

My experience on 1st Avenue South may have been unusual in that all the signals stopped the arterial, but it’s rare that you don’t encounter several.

Perhaps the city would care to respond?

Richard Wetjen, Federal Way


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