By Brian Maass
GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colo. (CBS4) – Chris Bichon, a soft spoken Colorado Department of Transportation employee in Glenwood Springs, believes he has solved a perennial winter problem that has cost lives, dramatic injuries and damaged property.
“It was a simple solution to a problem that I would like to share,” said Bichon as he showed a CBS4 crew around his Western Slope living room. Prototypes of traffic lights which he constructed to repel snow and stay clear and visible during winter storms littered the room.
“It’s a national problem, and people all over the country are having an issue with it,” said Bichon. He believes he has finally figured out a way to construct traffic lights that will not become caked with snow.
In 2017, a CBS4 investigation addressed the problem with LED traffic lights. They don’t emit heat and save on electricity, but simultaneously the lack of heat allows snow and ice to build up on the lights and can make them impossible to decipher during some adverse weather events.
In Illinois in 2009, a woman was killed after getting hit in an intersection when the LED light was obscured by snow.
Similar accidents have been reported across the country.
In 2016, Janet Lane of Parker suffered massive injuries including a broken neck when she was broadsided at a Parker Road intersection during a snowstorm. The LED lights at the intersection had become covered with snow, and the other driver said he couldn’t tell if the light was green or red.
Lane’s husband, John, said after his wife’s accident he researched the problem and found it was recurring across the country.
“It’s just a matter of time before it happens to someone else. I wonder why nobody’s doing anything about it?”
Bichon, 49, a signal engineer working for the Colorado Department of Transportation, had been quietly tinkering with the issue for a couple of years. His job is to maintain and repair stop lights in the Glenwood Springs area.
But after seeing the CBS4 investigation he says, “That’s when I started looking at it even more since there was no solution out there for it. So that story lit a fire.”
He redoubled his efforts eventually coming up with a prototype light that included a plastic cone and modifications to the housing to whisk snow and ice off the signal lens.
He estimates he spent about $20,000 on his design.
But would it work?
He tried to replicate blizzard conditions by using a leaf blower to blow fake snow on his prototype, but knew that would not provide definitive answers.
The only way to find out, he reasoned, was to wait for a snowstorm and mount his prototype in the back of his pickup truck and drive through the snow at high speeds to replicate what stationary LED lights are hit with during winter storms in Colorado.
Bichon estimates he left his home some 40 times during snowstorms to test his “snow proof signal.”
“Sometimes the snow was so bad I had to slow down so it was safe to drive.”
He said his design has worked flawlessly and has always stayed clear, never becoming obscured by snow.
”It’s been working really good. I wouldn’t be doing all this work and putting all this money into it if I didn’t think this could save someone’s life.”
He says his snow proof signals would cost states and local governments about $500 each, and he could quickly mass produce them. He has contacted transportation departments in New York, Michigan and Minnesota, but has yet to sell his devices.
He remains hopeful though that his invention will eventually be adopted and will save lives.
“It’s kind of an American dream. If you want to do something you still can in America”.