Are Smart Traffic Signals to Blame for Deadly Car Crashes in Shelby?

Macomb County Road Commission traffic engineer says, "no", but it's hard to tell for certain.

Hate it or love it, smart traffic lights in Shelby Township are here to stay.

As you drive down the same roads you’ve been traveling for years, you may not have noticed the quiet revolution in driving technology.

Since 2006, Macomb County has been integrating smart traffic signal technology into most every light in the county.

Smart traffic signals utilize software and wireless communications to read real-time traffic situations, and can ease the flow of traffic by reducing the amount of time cars spend idling.

All of the data is sent back to a server at the county’s Traffic Operations Center in Mount Clemens. During the day, a team monitors surveillance videos and the data, and can adjust timing of the lights if the intersection is congested or if an accident occurs.

Have the New Signals Raised Crash Rates?

Adam Merchant, Macomb County Road Commission traffic engineer said the smart traffic signals have been implemented because they have been proven to reduce traffic crashes.

Merchant said the technology the county uses has all been tested, regulated and approved by the federal government.

However, not all residents are happy with the technologically advanced traffic signals.

Mike Bommarito of Shelby Township sent Patch a letter explaining that his wife was recently been involved in a crash at the intersection of 23 Mile Road and Van Dyke Avenue, which is a signal that has smart technology, and blames the collision on the timing.

“Both cars were totaled. My wife goes through that intersection every morning for 10 years, and she was telling me previous to the accident, that the lights malfunctioned,” Bommarito said in his letter.

In the past two weeks, two fatal accidents have been reported at the intersection of 23 Mile Road and Van Dyke Avenue.

“I have no idea if it’s because of the traffic lights or drivers aren’t educated about smart lights,” said Shelby Township Lt. Thomas Kohl. 

Merchant said in the next month, Macomb will implement surveillance video at each intersection, but for now, they can only go back and look at the smart traffic light settings at the time of the crash to determine what signal motorists saw and whether there was a malfunction.

“On the police report, they (police) write the time police get on the scene, but you would actually need a black box in the car to get the exact crash time and surveillance cameras to determine exactly what the driver saw,” he said.

What Do Smart Traffic Signals Look Like

For the most part, motorists will not be able to detect a smart traffic light. New traffic signals with a black shell, rather than yellow, have been placed on 26 Mile Road and Van Dyke Avenue, but Merchant said it’s because the signals are new and the department opted for black rather than the traditional color.

Other than that, the smart technology had been implemented in some degree in most of the existing signals in Shelby through radio, infrared and microwave technologies.

The most noticeable sign for motorists that a traffic signal has smart technology is the presence of the four-level left turn signal.

Eventually, all left-hand flashing red signals in Michigan will be replaced with the four-level left turn signal. Merchant said Michigan is the only state in America to use that flashing red signal because it was a pilot program tested in the state in the 80s, but never implemented throughout the country.

“The government wants all traffic signals unified throughout the country,” said Merchant.

A detailed description on how to use the new four-level left-turn signals is located at www.rcmcweb.org.

Merchant said the smart traffic signals are a work in progress, and they are continually looking for ways to improve the technology and ease the burden on motorists.

“We’re trying to find what makes the people most comfortable. Our goal is to make it user friendly,” he said.  “We have new signals that we have to use and they’ve been found to be safe, and some people are taking a little extra time to get used to them.”

Visit the Macomb County Roads Commission website to submit a question or comment about smart traffic signals.

Lenox Bowman October 19, 2012 at 11:44 AM
Unfortunately, these intersections are to confusing for many drivers. They are non-predictive, in that we can't depend on what's happening with the other lights when ours turns from red to flashing red or red to flashing yellow. The patterns we are all accustom to are no longer valid. The road commission needs an education program about these traffic control system to inform drivers about how they work. It should be on TV in the form of PSA's in the news as PR's and as direct mail to every licensed driver in the state.
Resident October 19, 2012 at 01:32 PM
Just curious: How could these SMART signals increase accidents?
kim October 19, 2012 at 01:51 PM
There sure are a lot of accidents @ 23/van dyke. Something's not going right.
Den Cote October 19, 2012 at 02:12 PM
at least there won't ever be a major crash at 23 Mile and North Road now that they have the Smart lights working... traffic is backed up for the better part of a mile now, so you have PLENTY of time to see what's happening at the intersection.
Jim October 19, 2012 at 02:28 PM
I am almost 100% sure what happened; because I almost "caused" an accident at a similar intersection.. Scenario: Prior to the smart lights, when you entered the left turn lane while that lane light was flashing a yellow arrow, and the straight-thru light was green, (while stopped waiting for oncomming trafic to clear), you could count on the fact that when the straight-thru light turned yellow, that the same would occur for the oncomming traffic's light. You then knew to anticipate staring to make your turn on the flashing yellow left turn signal as you knew that opposing traffic would be stopping. Now, opposing traffic may still have a green straight thru light, and your flashing yellow arrow, all-of-sudden, turns red when the straight thru turns red (and you're in the middle of the intersection!) Not too smart(light)! No more creeping out into the intersection
Nancy October 19, 2012 at 03:20 PM
Jim you have it right. I have seen this happen to me. I've had to slam on my breaks and dodge a car that turned in front of me. We really need to watch these lights and not assume.
macombresident October 19, 2012 at 04:42 PM
You may not realize these lights are installed but you sure as heck see the results...traffic backups & increased number of accidents. These are supposed to be "intelligent" lights that change according to traffic conditions. Yet I cannot tell you how many times I've sat at intersections & watched while the light is stuck on green for one side with NO cars while those on the other sit and sit and sit with red. Or only stay green for 10-15 seconds, allowing at most 3 cars through., causing more accidents while drivers try to speed through since they've been stuck sitting there for 5-6 minutes. Traffic backups at these intersections have gotten much much worse since these lights have been installed: 22-23 & Hayes, 23-24 & Schoenherr, the list goes on & on. In lower traffic situations, the lights do work well & serve a purpose. But at the higher density traffic intersections they cause chaos. These lights DO NOT work & are causing more accidents at intersections where installed-shelby crash statistics back this up. Shelby Police Report News in 2011 reported that there was almost a 30% increase in the number of accidents in the first 6 months these were in installed. (I do not know 2012's statistics). There is no way to anticipate what these lights are going to do. As the poster above said, you could count on the lights "acting" a certain way...now there's no way to tell. I call them schizophrenic lights!
RantnRage October 20, 2012 at 05:26 AM
i have been in vehicle arriving at west bound 23 mile & Van Dyke just as the light was changing green. If you are not already "in line" when the light turned green you are not going to get through before the light turns red.... Then WAIT FOREVER while North-South traffic proceeds, even when there is no N-S traffic on Van Dyke,(Same for East-West bound 22 Mile /Van Dyke), .... Send me to Armada any day!
Frustrated Old Man October 20, 2012 at 01:06 PM
These Smart Light systems work well when they're programmed properly. But that's the problem, they're not! I have a serious problem with the one at 25 Mile Rd, and Schoenherr. If I am traveling West bound on 25 Mile, approaching Schoenherr, and the light turns green, after a vehicle goes though, the light turns yellow about 5 seconds after, then red. So if you're approaching the intersection when it's red, and it turns green, a vehicle already waiting there will go though the green light. But if you are more than a few car lengths behind it, you'll never make it! You have to literally be tailgating that car in front of you, if you want to make the light. This is an accident waiting to happen! I emailed the Macomb County Road Commission, and also called them, attempting to bring this to there attention, and get it resolved. I was told the traffic engineer that programs them, travels through that particular intersection when gong to work, and returning home after work. He claims it is working as it should. The odd thing is, the same exact setup at 25 Mile Rd, and Jewell road, doesn't work like that. It works like you would expect. I have a feeling the programmer has setup this intersection to favor his direction of travel. I would be compelled to step forward as a witness, should anyone have a serious accident at this intersection. They're playing with peoples lives!
John dowe October 26, 2012 at 04:15 PM
I think them smart lights are a joke they say there safe ya right .i think we all have had bad dealings with them dam lights I like the ones that are green till your 20 ft in front of it and it go,s yellow red and I mean less then a second then you have to cram the brake to the floor , that's bull shit in the winter time who ever came up with the smart light should be held for all the accedents that happen because of them lights they won't do anything about them till someone importen get s killed right or one of are kids get killed how stupid hay govner drop the brige and fix the light we payed for with tax money already
Sarah Franklin November 01, 2012 at 05:44 PM
I totally agree with that frustrated old man <lol> about the 25/Schoenherr "smart signals". That intersection is insanity! Traffic lights ALWAYS go on and off like a Christmas tree display with absolutely no predictability. Just yesterday I watched the light change twice (two complete on/off cycles in less than 15 seconds). And guaranteed, everytime you approach the light, it turns red... forces a quick stop... only to let you pass through within 10 seconds or less after that. I don't think I would use the word "SMART" when referencing those lights.
Sarah Franklin November 01, 2012 at 05:47 PM
besides.... asking the County Engineer whether he feels design of the "smart traffic lights" are the cause for increased accidents is like asking the structural engineer of the Titanic if the design of the failed plates in the hull had anything to do with the ship sinking. A more neutral, non-biased and professional assessment is needed, especially with that damn light at 25/schoenherr.
macombresident November 21, 2012 at 05:39 PM
The light at 22 & Hayes is an absolute nightmare. Drivers on southbound Hayes down towards 22 mile are backed up routinely to 23 mile.


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