Whenever I meet someone new, the conversation usually leads to this question: “So, what do you do?”

I’m not sure why we obsess about what people “do.” I suppose it’s part of seeking commonalities or interesting topics to keep the conversation moving along. But sometimes I wonder if perhaps there’s a more heartfelt reason. I wonder if deep down, either consciously or subconsciously, human beings long to know more about life and how to improve the flow of traffic. So this my friend, brings us to today’s topic: “Why Some Traffic Signals Get Stuck.”

When people ask me what I do, I’m careful to explain two things. Thing One is that I have been improving traffic for over 25 years. Thing Two is, unfortunately, I have never been asked to improve traffic in their hometown, nor along any of the streets they have ever travelled in their entire life. For I have found one’s opinion of traffic to be subjective. Not “wrong” mind you, just subjective. For traffic flow can always be improved — it can always be better.

Many ask about signalized intersections, “Why is the red light at ‘Abc Street & Xyz Boulevard’ so long and so red?”

There is (unfortunately) a simple explanation for this. Assuming the signal has been modernized with vehicle detection technology (VDT), the answer falls into one of two categories: 1) a failure in vehicle detection technology (VDT) resulting in factory-default timings that have little to do with reality, or 2) there’s a need to re-optimize (and re-program) the red and green times.

Traffic fluctuations are actually quite predictable by both time-of-day and day-of-the-week. And modern traffic signals have the ability to incorporate these variations for maximum vehicle efficiency with minimal delay (to you). And if this is not happening, well, the good news is, it is fixable.

Many of our clients recognize that traffic volumes and traffic patterns change over time. They are proactive and re-optimize traffic signal timings to make certain the green and red timings are appropriate for both the time-of-day and day-of-the-week.

So, if you are waiting at a traffic signal for no reason, it is likely the minimum red and green times are not properly optimized for that particular time of day (or day of the week) — or there is a failure in the VDS. If this situation occurs regularly, it would be a good idea to contact your local agency and report it. It would also be a good idea to not be reading this newspaper while waiting at a traffic signal…

Chet Skwarcan, Traffic Engineer and Futurist, has over 25 years of traffic engineering experience solving (and preventing) traffic problems. He can be reached at Chet@TrafficEngineering.com