This article originally appeared in the August 2011 issue of The Guardian, Volume 42 issue 8.
Summer in Seattle brings parades, marches, races, and special events on any given weekend. Construction also pops up throughout the city altering familiar routes on many arterial roads. Drivers trying to navigate the downtown core when it is broken into somewhat impassable sections become frustrated and often try to force their way through an officer’s traffic post. It’s all too familiar for an officer to nearly be run over because a driver, “needs to go this way” or “always goes that way”. Disobeying an officer, firefighter, or flagger could earn a driver a mandatory appearance before a judge.
The canyon walls of the city’s high-rise buildings echo with the whistles of traffic cops standing post, waving their arms. The whistle chirps are reminiscent of early traffic signals in the city, two short blasts for stop and one prolonged for go. The Washington State Certification for Flaggers requires an eight hour class and the certification lasts three years. Currently the Basic Law Enforcement Academy does not train their students how to safely and effectively direct traffic. If new officers throughout the state are not being trained in the basics of traffic control, it’s likely most of the drivers on the road won’t know what to do despite an officer’s best efforts. Traffic frustration is nothing new for officers or drivers alike.
In the early days of the automobile, the busiest intersections throughout the city were controlled by police officers using arm gestures and their whistles. Eventually officers used a type of semaphore to direct traffic. The signal was essentially four paddles; two that said STOP and two that said GO. The officer would manually rotate the semaphore. At night the signs would be illuminated with a flood light. Once the officer left their traffic post the streets reportedly turned to chaos almost immediately.
The first traffic lights in the city were installed in 1924 at three of the city’s busiest intersections; 4th Ave S and S Jackson St, 4th Avenue and Pike St, and at Roy St and Westlake Ave. The initial trial period used the lights between 7am and 10pm. It was estimated that nearly 24,000 vehicles passed through 4th and Jackson, the city’s busiest intersection, during that time. A four page report from the Traffic Subcommittee of the Board of Public Works published on June 6th, 1924 described the need for new signal lights due to an increasing traffic problem during rush hour. Peak rush hour lasted as long as two hours. “If all drivers were careful and particular, traffic might move smoothly of its own accord, without any regulation other than courtesy, but there seems to be a human weakness of “Beating the other fellow to it” which leads us into trouble.” The report goes on to describe the average American as “pretty self-reliant” with the tendency to “get their first strong in us all”.
Traffic signals had been around for around ten years when they first appeared in Seattle. The first electric traffic signal was installed in 1914 on the corner of Euclid Ave and E 105th St in Cleveland, Ohio. The first traffic signals were red and green with a buzzer to indicate the signal change. The first three color traffic signal as we know today was created by Detroit Police Officer, William Potts in 1920 and was utilized on the corner of Woodward and Michigan Ave in Detroit.
The new traffic lights could be manually controlled by officers but it was soon realized the automated light cycles of roughly 30 seconds worked more efficiently. The new traffic lights were a huge success. There were some difficulties with the first traffic signals, most notably seeing the green light during sunset hours. To provide better visibility and offset the low angle sunset glare on the west facing lights, shades were added.
The first traffic signals cost $685.00 each. Today LED traffic signals costs roughly $300 per fixture and less than $125 per bulb. There are currently more than 975 traffic lights in the city of Seattle. Traffic signals have fundamentally remained the same over the past eight decades, but are now integrated and far more automated, using calculate timing to meet the needs of traffic flow. Technology continues and adapts to meet our needs. LED traffic lights are cheaper to maintain and use less energy but are not hot enough to melt snow. Highway smart lanes do not recognize gridlock in inclement weather and still suggest sixty miles per hour in white out conditions. Toll lanes do not work with other regional passes and bike boxes add to urban congestion when right turns at busy intersections are no longer allowed. Despite all of the traffic safety advances and quirks yet to be worked out, there will always be a need for a traffic cop and his whistle.