Pa. responders wary of remote override of traffic signals

Driving vehicles equipped with transmitters that turn traffic signals from red to green, the responders can get through select intersections faster

By Adam Brandolph
Pittsburgh Tribune Review

PITTSBURGH, Pa. — Some paramedics, cops and firefighters in Pittsburgh's suburbs speed up when they see red.

Driving vehicles equipped with transmitters that turn specially outfitted traffic signals from red to green, the responders can get through select intersections to reach emergency scenes faster.

"There's no doubt in my mind that these save lives," Monroeville police Chief Doug Cole said. "They definitely make a difference in the safety of our intersections."

Officials in suburban communities from Cranberry to Wilkinsburg say the devices, known as traffic signal preemption devices, are a valuable tool to battle fires, respond to victims and uphold the law.

Sue Springsteen, co-founder of N(th) Solutions in Exton, which manufactures a system called Priority Green, said even though the devices have been around since the 1970s, many people don't know they exist. They're illegal for "just anyone" to use.

"Because it's not in the general public's domain, a lot of people don't know about this life-saving device," she said. "But people should know about them. They could save your life one day."

Western Pennsylvania's biggest urban center doesn't use them.

Pittsburgh Public Safety Director Mike Huss said the city considered systems but realized they would be difficult to use.

"Due to the fact our streets are not laid out in north/south, east/west grids and in some cases follow a triangle instead of a square, we have not pursued these aggressively," Huss said.

PennDOT installed sensors on some of the busiest state roads heading out of the city: routes 19, 51, 65, 30 and 60.

Signal pre-emption devices in emergency vehicles transmit visual, audible or GPS signals to receivers on equipped traffic lights. The receivers determine which direction the vehicle is traveling and quickly turn lights in all other directions from green to yellow to red, and give the green light to the emergency vehicle.

"Drivers can go through the intersection and don't have to worry about broadsiding another vehicle or being broadsided. It's a significant safety benefit," PennDOT District 11 traffic engineer Todd Kravits said.

Although PennDOT installed sound-activated devices on signals on Perry Highway, from West View to McCandless, Ross/West View EMS Authority Director Bryan Kircher said he never received notice they existed. Ambulance drivers discovered them a few months ago while en route to emergencies.

Ross officials said they haven't taken control of lights because PennDOT is still installing them, so they didn't tell public safety departments.

"We know about them now, but it's trial and error at this point," Kircher said.

Relatively new in some communities, the devices have been around for more than a decade in others.

"We definitely think they make our intersections safer for ambulances and other motorists," said Jerry Andree, manager for Cranberry, which has had them for 12 years.

Nationally there were 10,746 crashes involving emergency vehicles with lights and/or sirens on in 2009, according to the most recent data from the National Safety Council. Although those accounted for fewer than 1 percent of the 5.5 million collisions nationwide that year, they caused 7,628 injuries — nearly twice the rate of injury for nonemergency vehicles.

Most officials say a pre-emption device's $3,000 to $10,000 cost per intersection isn't prohibitive. Monroeville and Cranberry officials said they include the price of upgraded traffic signals with pre-emption devices installed through negotiations when developers propose buildings, such as the new UPMC East facility along Mosside Boulevard.

Mt. Lebanon spent $270,000 since 2001 to outfit 31 lights with devices and plans to spend $90,000 over the next three years to equip the municipality's 15 remaining traffic lights.

"They allow us to not run all of our calls with lights and sirens (on) and still get to where we're going in a fairly good time frame," Mt. Lebanon Fire Chief Nick Sohyda said.

The devices are not without limitations. Manufacturers said visual devices have limited range, because the vehicle must have a line of sight to the traffic light. In cities, audible devices might not work properly if the sound echoes, and it can be difficult to get a GPS signal in tunnels or among tall buildings.

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