Is time running out for traffic lights?

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Traffic dial

Will wireless technology and autonomous cars see Australia’s traffic lights get the boot? 

A traffic management trial in NSW could be the start of a trend that may spell the end of traffic lights as we know them.

After less than a century in widespread operation the simple red, yellow and green light system may be rendered obsolete by real-time communication between vehicles and road infrastructure.

Though its days are not yet numbered, the history of traffic lights include a weird Melbourne invention blamed for high-speed crashes, an exploding traffic light and a baffling episode during the Cuban Missile Crisis when the world was on the brink of nuclear armageddon.

The NSW trial sees 110 trucks ‘talk’ wirelessly to traffic lights to see whether congestion can be reduced at Sydney’s busiest intersections.

But can a combination of such trials, autonomous vehicles and wireless technology see off traffic lights?

History of traffic lights

London was home to a gas-lit traffic light in late 1868, the first of its kind, according to BBC article The Man Who Gave Us Traffic Lights. Railway signal engineer J P Knight’s invention was operated by a policeman. The gas-lit design had three arms to direct traffic during the day, and a green and a red light for night. The signals blew up in January 1869, only a month after installation. Reports said the blast either killed or injured the policeman.

A wooden handmade traffic light, developed by American policeman Lester Wire in 1912, was the next attempt. But it was a corporation, The American Traffic Signal Company that installed the world’s first electrical traffic light, in Ohio in August 1914.

The first traffic lights in Australia were at the intersection of Collins and Swanston streets, Melbourne, in 1928.

In his book Roads for the People, W. K. Anderson wrote that at first there was an increase in traffic accidents as people attempted to “beat” the lights.

Melbourne’s odd traffic controls

Melbourne’s home-grown alternative to traffic lights was short lived. The signal, known as the Marshalite after its inventor Charles Marshall, was invented in 1936. The prototype was decommissioned after a local councillor became furious after being fined. The councillor had the fine waived on the grounds that the council did not own the Marshalite and had no legal jurisdiction to operate it. Restored versions, in working order, can be seen in front of the RACV City Club in Melbourne’s Bourke Street, at the Melbourne Museum and in Bicentennial Park, Chelsea.

In 1945 a second example of the Marshalite was installed on the corner of Johnson and Brunswick Street, Fitzroy.

The Marshalite was blamed for a number of high speed crashes, mostly because it was unable to adapt to peak traffic conditions.

The last Marshalite was removed in the 1970s from the Nepean Highway at Aspendale.

Cuban Missile Crisis

And nuclear armageddon? During the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, marines at Guantanamo Bay were baffled by a Cuban coded signalling system that used yellow, green and red flashes. US Brigadier General William Collins was “perplexed”, according to historian Michael Dobbs in One Minute to Midnight, his history of the crisis. The brigadier general burst out laughing when he realised the signals were traffic lights – not a sinister code.

But will wireless communication and fleets of autonomous cars kill off traffic lights any time soon?

RACV’s manager of roads and traffic Dave Jones thinks probably not.

“It’s likely that as long as a number of people drive cars that don’t communicate wirelessly with other vehicles and infrastructure, traffic lights will be needed.”

Written by Jessica Hirst
July 26, 2016