LED Traffic Lights: Unintended Consequences Of Energy Savings

By Brian Maass

DENVER (CBS4) – Janet Lane strains to bend and unload dishes from her dishwasher following a traffic accident in March that she blames on a traffic light near her home.

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(credit: CBS)

The same type of light emitting diode, also known as LED, traffic lights are scattered across Colorado. According to drivers, traffic engineers and public works departments, can pose a hazard during certain Colorado snowstorms.

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(credit: CBS)

“I remember the sounds of crunching metal and being spun around,” said the 62-year-old Parker woman. “Then I just remember not being able to move my arms.”

She had left her home before 8 a.m. on March 24 to go to work. A typical heavy, wet spring snowstorm was whipping the metro area.

Lane did not know that the stoplight near her home at state Highway 83 and Old School House Road was equipped with LED bulbs which have been embraced by local and state governments, as they save up to 90% on energy costs as compared with standard incandescent bulbs.

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(credit: CBS)

The LED bulbs are more visible, have a longer life and require lower maintenance, but emit so little heat that snow and ice don’t melt and tend to stick to them. The snow sometimes coats the lenses and makes it difficult for drivers to discern if they have the green or red light.

On that morning, Mason Oakley, 25, was headed toward the same intersection on Highway 83 with his wife in the passenger seat.

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Mason Oakley (credit: CBS)

As they approached the light, Oakley said, “The lights were caked with snow. As we approached the light we had a conversation; I said what color? And she said, looks green to me. I wasn’t able to see the color of the light and made the best judgment at the time.”

As it turned out, Oakley’s light was red and his car collided with Lane’s. “It could have been a fatal accident,” said Oakley. “Obviously it’s a problem”.

Police cited Oakley for careless driving.

Lane was hospitalized for a week with a broken neck and other serious injuries. She now has titanium plates and eight screws in her spine.

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(credit: Janet Lane)

She said she still has difficulty swallowing along with numbness and tingling in her fingers.

“It would be nice if he had seen the red light, might have been a whole different outcome,” she said.

Lane isn’t upset with Oakley, but is frustrated that what happened to her has happened repeatedly with LED traffic lights, with no firm resolution to the problem in sight.

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(credit: Janet Lane)

Her husband, John Lane, told CBS4, “It’s just a matter of time before it happens to somebody else. Why would you put in something that’s potentially going to hurt somebody?”

In 2009, 34-year-old Lisa Richter was killed in Illinois during a snowstorm. The accident was blamed on an LED light.

Richter had a green light, but the other driver didn’t realize he had the red as the LED bulb was obscured by snow. He plowed into Richter’s vehicle, killing her. A police detective said the accident likely would not have occurred had the light been clear.

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(credit: CBS)

Dozens of similar collisions have been reported in other cold weather states like Iowa and Minnesota.

To address the problem, many agencies have installed ‘snow scoops’ or weather shields around the LED bulbs to try to keep them clear of snow and ice, but those don’t always work.

Nancy Kuhn with Denver’s Public Works Department says the city has about 1,300 signals using LED lights. They began converting to LED’s 15 years ago.

“On occasions, in certain types of winter storms, we have run into occasions where the snow will stick to them,” said Kuhn.

She said the city is looking at new products to address the problem and adds, “but we haven’t found anything that’s a silver bullet. We haven’t found that perfect product we’re looking for just yet.”

Kuhn said if drivers encounter snow-covered LED signals they are asked to call 311 and crews are dispatched to clear the lights. “It can be a hazard in certain storms. People need to be aware of it,” she said.

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(credit: CBS)

If drivers come across a light obscured by snow, they are supposed to treat it as a four-way stop.

In Douglas County, traffic engineers are “bench testing” a new bulb from General Electric that senses snow and ice buildup triggering a heating element.

County Spokesperson Wendy Manitta Holmes told CBS4 the testing is part of “our efforts to identify a technology solution to the current LED traffic signal indicators that become snow and ice packed under certain conditions.”

Holmes also emphasizes that if drivers can’t make out the color of the lights, they need to treat the intersection as a four-way stop.

Janet Lane has enlisted an attorney and is considering legal action against the State of Colorado over the LED light that contributed to her accident.

Her lawyer, Peter Schaeffer, contends the state was negligent since it knew the LED lights were susceptible to snow and ice buildup, knew the storm was coming, and should have been prepared to clear snow off the signal faces.

“It’s not just getting justice for Janet Lane, it’s making sure this doesn’t happen again,” Schaeffer said. “It can happen again anytime there’s a snowstorm and that’s scary. I don’t think its worth it; losing peoples lives for saving money on the electric bill”.

CBS4 Investigator Brian Maass has been with the station more than 30 years uncovering waste, fraud and corruption. Follow him on Twitter @Briancbs4.

Comments

One Comment

  1. When a signal is not working, what are you supposed to do? Treat it as a STOP SIGN. This is a non-issue and cases of people suing cities should all be thrown out of court.

  2. Jason Gray says:

    If people follow the law when it comes to traffic lights, this isn’t an issue… It clearly states to treat malfunctioning lights or non-visible lights as four-way stops.

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