Energy-efficient LED traffic lights can be hidden by snow
LED traffic signals emit less heat, and have trouble melting snow ... snow blanketed LED traffic lights lead to crashes at intersections where drivers aren't sure whether to stop or go. Savings can be significant, energy costs dropped more than 80 percent, from $63.30 a month to $9.95. Of course we save a few trees, but that causes a few people to die when they have fatal crashes because snow covers the lights. Ain't being politically correct green great! Who cares if it costs a few lives - at least that's what the tree huggers say!
Winter hazard in new LED signals
Energy-efficient lights can be hidden by snow
Oswego police photographed this LED traffic light after an April crash killed Lisa Richter. Snow obscured the signal facing the other driver. (Oswego Police Dept. / April 6, 2009)
December 29, 2009
In April, Lisa Richter was making a left turn on green in Oswego when she was struck by a vehicle traveling the opposite direction, killing her instantly.
Authorities say Richter, 34, might still be alive if not for an unintended consequence of green technology -- the LED traffic signal facing the other driver was obscured by snow. Oswego police Detective Rob Sherwood called the snow-covered energy-efficient signal "a contributing factor" in the crash.
"If the light had not been covered, I personally feel the accident would have not occurred," he said.
Towns across Illinois and nationwide have switched to LED traffic signals because they burn brighter, last longer and save money by using 90 percent less energy than older incandescent bulbs. But they also emit less heat, meaning they sometimes have trouble melting snow.
This has caused problems across the Midwest. In Wisconsin earlier this month, snow blanketed LED traffic lights in some towns, leading to "crashes at intersections where drivers aren't sure whether to stop or go," The Associated Press said.
Manufacturers say they are aware of the problem and have looked at solutions, such as adding a heating element to LED signals. But adding heat would diminish the energy savings of LED signals, said Roy Burton, chief executive of Dialight, an LED traffic-signal manufacturer.
"We can remove the snow with heat, but the cost of doing that in terms of energy use has not brought any enthusiasm from cities and states that buy these signals," Burton said. "They'd like to be able to take away this issue, but they don't want to spend the money and lose the savings."
Those savings can be significant. When St. Charles installed LED traffic lights at First and Illinois avenues in 2005, energy costs dropped more than 80 percent, from $63.30 a month to $9.95.
Communities also save money on replacing signals because LED lights last up to 10 times longer than incandescent bulbs. And they can receive funding to cover upfront costs. The Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation has given out $9.9 million in grants for 150 government agencies to upgrade traffic signals at nearly 5,400 intersections around Illinois, according to the foundation's Web site.
Meanwhile, the Illinois Department of Transportation has aggressively pushed for replacing incandescent traffic signals with LED lights, requiring communities that install red-light cameras to use LED traffic lights at those intersections because they burn brighter, said Priscilla Tobias, an IDOT safety engineer.
LEDs "are much more visible to the motorist so they have more time to see the traffic signal and react," Tobias said. "Not only are we addressing energy efficiency, we're also improving safety at intersections."
In Chicago's suburbs, engineers say snow can cover LED traffic signals, but only under certain conditions -- wet, driving snow and freezing temperatures -- and rarely every signal at an intersection.
They say the problem is easily remedied by maintenance crews using brooms and occurs so infrequently -- once or twice a winter -- that it does not outweigh the benefits of energy efficiency.
"Maybe it takes longer to melt and you have to go and clean them off, but it's part of the trade-off for years of energy savings," said Tony Khawaja, a traffic engineer for the Lake County Division of Transportation.
In Kendall County, crews are occasionally dispatched during winter to remove snow or ice from LED traffic signals by using a pole or a heating device, said Francis Klaas, a county highway engineer.
"But usually by the time we get there, it's gone," Klaas said.
Klaas declined to comment on whether the county had received reports about the traffic signal in Oswego being obscured, citing pending litigation.
All of Naperville's estimated 100 intersections with traffic lights are equipped with LED signals, community relations manager Nadja Lalvani said. The city began installing the lights several years ago.
"In this most recent snow and ice storm, we didn't receive any complaints, and we don't have concerns about them," Lalvani said. She said she could not recall Naperville receiving complaints of snow or ice obstructing LED signals in previous years.
Richter's fiance, Robert Leathers, who was a passenger in her vehicle and suffered "significant injuries" in the crash, has filed a lawsuit against Alex Dyche, whose 2002 Dodge Ram hit Richter's 2004 Chevrolet Cavalier shortly after 7 a.m. at Orchard Road and Lewis Street, according to police and court records.
At the time, the red light signal facing Dyche, who was traveling south on Orchard Road, was blanketed with snow, and the green right-turn arrow was partly obscured, giving it the appearance of a normal green light, said Dyche's attorney, Steven Danekas.
No citations were issued in the accident, and the police have concluded their investigation, Sherwood said.
But Leathers alleges that Dyche, 33, of Montgomery, was "careless and negligent" for failing to reduce speed, sound a horn and "observe and obey a traffic control device," according to the lawsuit. [of course the government refuses to accept responsibility for the traffic lights that can't be seen and blames the driver of the car!]
In an interview, Richter's father, Ed Richter, said the snow-covered traffic signal may have been a contributing factor in the crash that killed his daughter, but that it should not absolve the driver.
"Just because he can't see the light doesn't mean he can drive through the intersection without due caution," Richter said.
Klaas of the county Highway Department said any time motorists cannot see a traffic signal, "they should slow down and stop in accordance with the law."
"It didn't happen in this case, and it's a terrible tragedy," he said.