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New York Red Lights

Have you ever watched ants invade a picnic? It's actually quite fascinating. Hundreds of the little critters form orderly trails to your leftover potato chip crumbs and then begin to march back toward their anthill. What's so remarkable is the fact that even when two lines of ants cross, there's never a traffic jam or a collision. Somehow, they just instinctively "know" when it's their turn to go. Human drivers aren't like that. When we encounter crowded, busy intersections, relying on "instinct" to determine which car goes next is a great way to cause an accident. Can you imagine if drivers in New York City tried to negotiate their way through traffic based on instinct alone? It would get messy....

Since humans don't have the same innate sense of orderliness and fair play as ants, we need a set of rules to rely on instead. At intersections without a lot of traffic, stop signs and right-of-way laws are sufficient. At busy intersections, that's simply not enough, so we use traffic lights. Traffic lights use different colored lights to clearly indicate which car is allowed to use the intersection at any given time. The first traffic signal was invented by JP Knight and installed in London, England near the House of Commons in 1868. This device was operated by hand by a policeman. At night, it used red and green lights modeled after railway signal lights. Unfortunately for the poor policeman, it exploded approximately a year later.

Fast-forward to Detroit, Michigan in 1920, when the first modern traffic light was invented by William Potts. This traffic signal was illuminated both day and night, could run on an automatic timer instead of a hand crank, and it was the first traffic signal with a yellow light to warn drivers to clear the intersection. We still use the same system today, borrowed from old rail signals: red means stop, green means go, and yellow means to proceed with caution so that you won't be in the intersection when the light turns red. Everyone knows when it's their turn to go, and accidents are avoided. Isn't technology wonderful?

The problem is that not everyone wants to heed traffic signals, even though obedience is required under New York law. Per the New York Driver's Manual, this is what you are supposed to do if you come across a traffic light that is steady and red:

"Stop. Do not go until the light is green. If a green arrow is shown with the red light, you may go only in the direction of the arrow and only if the way is clear. 


You may make a right turn at a steady red light after coming to a full stop and yielding the right-of-way to oncoming traffic and pedestrians. You may make a left turn at a steady red light when turning from a one-way road into another one-way road after coming to a full stop and yielding the right-of-way to oncoming traffic and pedestrians."-New York Driver's Manual

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