ITD News
Associated Press
News Link

Washington moves toward ban on signal changers

Devices used by emergency vehicles to turn red lights green are sold on the Internet to
commuters the state says are in too big of a hurry.

By Diana Hefley
Everett Herald Writer

A cure for the red light blues is being hawked on the Internet for anyone willing to shop around and slap down $400.

Devices commonly used by police and firefighters to change traffic lights from red to green are being offered to commuters on some web sites.

State lawmakers think that's a bad idea and are working to ban the signal changers for anyone but emergency responders.

The state Senate unanimously passed a bill on Tuesday that would make it a criminal offense for unauthorized people to own, sell or use the devices. A similar bill is making its way through the House.

"There are already a lot of traffic accidents. Can you imagine the problems with safety these cause?" said bill sponsor Sen. Paull Shin, D-Edmonds. "Technology is wonderful, unless it's technology for the wrong purposes."

The devices emit a strobe or infrared light that is picked up by a receiver mounted on the traffic signal. The receiver changes the light to green within seconds.

Late last month, someone driving through Mountlake Terrace triggered a green light while a maintenance crew was working on a traffic signal at 44th Avenue W. and 212th Street SW. The light changed unexpectedly and a red sports car went through the intersection, Police Chief Scott Smith said.

"Unfortunately, there were no officers in the area," he said.

Currently, people caught using the device in Mountlake Terrace face a traffic ticket carrying a $194 fine.

The proposed bill calls for making it a criminal violation with a steeper fine and possible jail time.

Police and firefighters are applauding the bill, saying an impatient driver could cause a deadly crash by changing lights.

"We have lights and sirens to warn people we're coming," Everett Fire Marshal Warren Burns said.

Smith said his officers are trained to use the equipment with caution. "It is risky for just anyone do be using these things," he said.

The light changers also can cause traffic nightmares, according to Linda Mullen, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation. Traffic signals are timed to benefit the most people, she said.

"There's the potential to make traffic worse for the average commuter," Mullen said.

City engineers in Lynnwood and Mountlake Terrace agree and are looking at ways to encrypt the signals so only emergency vehicles can trigger the lights.

"I'm not sure how often it's happening, but we know the technology is out there," said Bill Frantz, Lynnwood public works director.

Police and lawmakers don't know how often these devices are being used.

A quick search on the Internet revealed a handful of Web sites that offer the changers. The most common is a mobile infrared transmitter -- a small device that can be mounted on a vehicle dashboard and ranges from $300 to $500. Kits to make your own also are available.

One Web site advertises to private investigators, doctors and expecting couples, saying anyone can buy the signal changers.

Another site listed the names and phone numbers of dealers around the country.

Dale Sanders of Snohomish was on that list. He became a registered dealer by applying over the Internet. He did not want to comment about who buys the devices from him.

The Senate bill is expected to go to the House Transportation Committee.

"I have no reason to believe it won't pass," Shin said.