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Dilip S Dahanukar

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The red traffic light is the simplest of instruction in our life. As soon as you see it, the body reacts automatically. There are many types of traffic lights to guide cars and pedestrians on the road. But can you find such signals within you to guide you through the journey of life? It’s a feel-good article.

I was speeding towards a crossing trying to beat the green traffic light. But the lights changed and the red light stared at my face. I slammed the breaks and stopped the car. A fast car sped from left to right. If I had not stopped, I would have surely been hit by that car. My heart raced. Fortunately there was no other car at the back to hit me from behind as I came abruptly to a halt. As I regained my composure, I reflected on the event. I thanked the red light for stopping me just in time.

What would the World be like without the red light? It would be in complete chaos. The simple invention has brought so much order and safety to the civilized World! I decided to probe the internet for the origin and history of the humble traffic light.

I found that the traffic lights were an invention of a Railway engineer JP Knight who first fitted his red/green gas-light traffic signal at the top of Parliament Square in London as far back as in 1868! In the US of A, William Potts, a police officer in Detroit put up the first electric traffic lights in 1920! And it was 12 years later in 1932 that London got its first set of modern traffic lights.

The traffic lights were meant to allow right of way to the vehicular traffic alternately to different directions. The simple system gave a cue to the drivers when to stop and when to proceed. But in places where the traffic was heavy, the pedestrians found it difficult to cross. The crossing paths across road junctions were painted in black and white stripes for the pedestrians to walk. On this strip, called the Zebra Crossing, the vehicles had to stop to give right of way to the walkers. But where the pedestrians were numerous they had a time slot of their own with “Walk” / “Don’t Walk” lights at pedestrian crossings. 

Soon there were many innovations for the pedestrian crossing signals. In England, they were known after the names of birds! Where the pedestrians were infrequent they could activate the “Walk” sign by pressing a button. This was named a “Pelican” crossing for the lights mounted on the opposite side of the road and “Puffin” crossing where the lights were mounted on the same side of the road. To facilitate cyclists along with pedestrians, a “Toucan” crossing was introduced. The horse riders were also not left behind; they had the facility of the “Pegasus” crossing which had a button placed high up on a pole for the rider to press! 

Sometimes when there not a single car anywhere in sight, the red light seems like a tyrant bullying you to wait for no reason. Should we become slaves of such idiot machines? But this too is changing as the controllers of traffic lights are being programmed with sensors to make the green light come on faster when there is a dearth of traffic. The lights give the drivers a false sense of security and they speed up their vehicles through the green light. This is dangerous on sparse traffic conditions as there may be a driver on the cross road who impatiently jumps the red light and causes an accident. 

Traffic lights could be oppressive in crowded conditions as well. In very crowded areas like a hustling and bustling city centre, the traffic is always slow and the traffic lights are a real nuisance. The lights hinder traffic more than facilitate it. Traffic planners are realizing that it may be better to restore the traffic management to humans. In some traffic conditions the eye contact between the drivers and the pedestrians may be a better way of giving way to one another. This is proved in the Dutch town of Drachten where in 2004, the road signs and traffic lights were taken down as a part of ‘Naked Street’ experiment. Natural cautious negotiation between the motorists, cyclists and the walkers govern the streets and the number of accidents has reduced remarkably! 

The new awakening has found its roots in England too! The council of Kensington and Chelsea was the first to remove traffic lights to forge modern ‘shared streetscapes’ where eye contact between motorists and simple common sense can do away with a ‘clutter’ of bollards and barriers, traffic lights, street signs, and speed cameras. The council has succeeded in turning the Exhibition Road into an open ‘naked street’ for cars and pedestrians by ‘decluttering’ of the Kensington High Street. They have pulled down the railings, removed the kerbs and signs. They have however added bicycle islands and mini-roundabouts. The result is vastly reduced accidents! It shows that there is a built in regulator within us.

But for most of the roads with moderate traffic and without many pedestrians, the traffic lights will reign for a long time to come. The red light tells you to stop. It is the simplest form of instruction. I wish there were many more red lights in other forms of human activity. I wish there was a red light to signal a stop to those who have had a drink too many!

Do you have a red light which shines when you are doing something wrong? If you open your heart and search for it, you may find the red light of your conscience to guide you! It is such a good feeling to find that there is a decision signal on the journey of our life! And to me the good old red and green lights are more than just traffic controllers. They help you to find more within you. They are a blessing in disguise for a warm and secure wellness of our being! 


Web Site Dilip Dahanukar

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Reviewed by John Domino 7/17/2010
In reference to: "Life is Good with Traffic Lights." What a great article! Thank you for this fascinating history lesson! You intrigued me so much that I decided to research the history further. Here is what I found:

Police Officer William L. Potts of Detroit, Michigan, was figuring out a way to adapt railroad signals for street use. The railroads were already utilizing automatic controls. But railroad traffic traveled along parallel lines. Street traffic traveled at right angles. Potts used red, amber, and green railroad lights and about thirty-seven dollars worth of wire and electrical controls to make the world’s first 4-way three color traffic light. It was installed in 1920 on the corner of Woodward and Michigan Avenues in Detroit. Within a year, Detroit had installed a total of fifteen of the new automatic lights.
At about the same time, Garrett Morgan of Cleveland, Ohio realized the need to control the flow of traffic. A gifted inventor and reportedly the first African American to own an automobile in Cleveland, Ohio, he invented the electric automatic traffic light. Though it looked more like the semaphore signals you see at train crossings today. For more information please see website below:

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Dilip S Dahanukar

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