“It startles drivers; it scares drivers,” says Champaign Deputy Fire Chief Stephen Clarkson. “Add that confusion or distraction to that vehicle approaching an intersection that's controlled by some traffic lights and it makes for the potential of some accidents.”
That's why nearly 30 years ago the Champaign Fire Department installed receivers above certain intersections. Firefighters simply beam a signal to them to change the light to green. But some say that's not quick enough. In comes new technology.
“It goes beyond the line of sight,” Clarkson says. “It works by radio waves. It tracks the location of the vehicle and communicates with the traffic lights that are in route with us. It estimates our time of arrival at those traffic lights and pre-empts the system as we approach.”
This new GPS system Champaign is about to put in can change lights to green before fire trucks get there. It can even read turn signals.
“We expect this system to be much more reliable than the optical system,” Clarkson says. “So it's going to reduce our response time.”
But emergency workers aren't the only ones who'll benefit. Buses can also use it to make up time, but with one big difference. “With the emergency vehicles it's a preemption, and it turns it green all the way down the lane of traffic. Ours is a priority and it doesn't automatically turn green for them,” says MTD Director Karl Gnadt.
Instead a light would simply stay green longer, and only if a bus is behind schedule. For MTD that means lower costs because fewer backup buses have to pick up slack. For you… “We are providing better service for the customer a higher degree of reliability,” Gnadt says.
But what do drivers think about a longer wait at a red light?
“The bus I'd have to think about,” says driver Mike Mitchell. “From an emergency standpoint, I work in healthcare so I fully understand if a bus or ambulance is trying to get through the city.”
Driver Liz Funkhouser say this system would really be more fair. “Waiting for a bus is sort of a hassle and if you need to take a bus you should be allowed to get to your destination on time just as everybody else who has their own transportation,” she says. “I always give myself plenty of time to get to my destination, so I don't think it will be a big deal.”
According to directors at MTD, it really won't be a big deal. They say statistics show there's relatively no traffic backup and drivers don't even notice.
“In fact if you’re in your car and you're going the same direction as a bus you have the same opportunity as the bus to get through,” Gnadt says.
Clarkson says, “If the system works as we hope it will the driver won't even realize that we pre-empted the system.”
The systems aren't in yet. Firefighters say they'll be up and running later this month. Ten emergency vehicles will get the system along with ten buses. In the beginning only the highest traffic intersections will be affected, but officials say if this pilot program is successful that could change.