New LED traffic lights: are they accidents waiting to happen?

January 4th, 2010

By Dean I Weitzman, Esq.


Fueled by the goal of drastically cutting their expensive electricity bills, cash-strapped municipal governments around the United States have been changing over from traditional light bulbs to new energy-saving light-emitting diodes (LEDs) in traffic lights at thousands of intersections.  But unlike “impact studies” that often have to be done for zoning, planning and road construction projects, no one seemed to think twice about the impacts of such a move.

Yes, it saves plenty of energy to move from incandescent light bulbs to LEDs, but an unforeseen problem has arisen in states where winter means ice, snow and sleet — the new LED bulbs don’t give off resulting heat that in the past has melted snow and ice from the fixtures so frozen precipitation doesn’t block the critical signal lights from the view of  drivers.  Can you imagine pulling up to a traffic light that you can’t see because the red, yellow and green lamps are covered over by snow and ice?  What in the world are you supposed to do?

Hanging traffic light with traditional incandescent bulbs

This type of traffic light with traditional incandescent light bulbs uses more energy but also melts collecting ice and snow during the winter months so the lights aren't accidentally blocked by precipitation. Image credit: ©

Tragically, vehicle accidents have started occurring across the nation as a result of the cool-running LED traffic lights,  according to a news story last week in The New York Times.  Road crews in Wisconsin are having to use brushes to manually clear snow and ice from LED traffic lights this winter, the story said, and some signals are being fitted with special shields that are sloped to allow collecting snow and ice to fall away from the lights.  One traffic accident near Chicago last April left a woman motorist dead when her car was struck by a pickup truck in an intersection due to a red light that was apparently blocked by snow, according to the Times. Four people in the pickup were injured in the crash.

The problem is that this is the kind of thing that can happen when government agencies do things in a vacuum without really taking a good, hard look at what they are doing.  That would include things like recommending a knee-jerk move to LED lights under the guise of energy savings without looking at any other factors.  Knee-jerk reactions are often a government strategy, and that’s not good planning.

This is a great example of why governments and their agencies  need to thinking more often with a team mentality.  Governments need to gather engineers, lawyers, and other specialists before enacting changes that can have fatal consequences.  Politicians too often buy into their own talking points and then convince themselves that  they know more than the engineers and specialists do.  They make decisions without using the experts who can advise them.  Did anyone ask traffic engineers about using LEDs to see if they would have raised issues about snow and ice and LEDs?  Perhaps not.

Maybe the LEDs are the greatest thing since sliced bread because they save energy, last longer and are brighter than incandescent bulbs, but the point is that such decisions should be made with all the gathered information at a government’s disposal.

In the meantime, energy-efficient LED traffic signals are one more potential hazard that drivers have to deal with as they cope with snow and ice this winter in cold climates such as Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Let’s be careful out there.

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