Traffic signal preemption

Traffic signal preemption is a type of system that allows the normal operation of traffic lights to be preempted, often to assist emergency vehicles.[1][2] The most common use of these systems is to manipulate traffic signals in the path of an emergency vehicle, stopping conflicting traffic and allowing the emergency vehicle right-of-way, to help reduce response times and enhance traffic safety.[3] Sometimes, signal preemption is also used at railroad grade crossings to prevent collisions, and by light-rail and bus rapid transit systems to allow public transportation priority access through intersections to ensure they remain on schedule and improve commute times.



Traffic preemption devices are implemented in a variety of ways. They can be installed on road vehicles, integrated with train transportation network management systems, or operated by remote control from a fixed location, such as a fire station, or by a 9-1-1 dispatcher at an emergency call center. Traffic lights must be equipped to receive an activation signal to be controlled by any system intended for use in that area. A traffic signal not equipped to receive a traffic preemption signal will not recognize an activation, and will continue to operate in its normal cycle.

Vehicular devices can be switched on or off as needed, but in the case of emergency vehicles they are frequently integrated with the vehicle's emergency warning lights. When activated, the traffic premption device will cause properly-equipped traffic lights in the path of the vehicle to cycle immediately, to grant right-of-way in the desired direction, after allowing for normal programmed time delays for signal changes and pedestrian crosswalks to clear.

Traffic signal preemption systems integrated with train transportation networks typically extend their control of traffic from the typical crossarms and warning lights to one or more nearby traffic intersections, to prevent excessive road traffic from approaching the crossing, while also obtaining the right-of-way for road traffic that may be in the way to quickly clear the crossing.

Fixed-location systems can vary widely, but a typical implementation is for a single traffic signal in front of or near a fire station to stop traffic and allow emergency vehicles to exit the station unimpeded. Alternatively, an entire corridor of traffic signals along a street may be operated from a fixed location, such as to allow fire apparatus to quickly respond through a crowded downtown area, or to allow an ambulance faster access when transporting a critical patient to a hospital in an area with dense traffic.

Traffic signal preemption systems sometimes include a method for communicating to the operator of the vehicle that requested the preemption (as well as other drivers) that a traffic signal is under control of a preemption device, by means of a notifier. This device is almost always an additional light located near the traffic signals. It may be a single light bulb visible to all, which flashes or stays on, or there may be a light aimed towards each direction that traffic approaches the intersection from. In the case of multiple notifier lights at a controllable intersection, they will either flash or stay on depending on the local configuration, to communicate to all drivers from which direction a preempting signal is being received. This informs regular drivers which direction may need to be cleared, and informs activating vehicle drivers if they have control of the light (especially important when more than one activating vehicle approaches the same intersection). A typical installation would provide a flashing notifier to indicate that an activating vehicle is approaching from ahead or behind, while a solid notifier would indicate the emergency vehicle is approaching laterally. There are variations of notification methods in use, which may include one or more colored lights in varying configurations.

Events leading up to an activation and notification are not experienced by drivers on a daily basis, and driver education and awareness of these systems can play a role in how effective the systems are in speeding response times. Unusual circumstances can also occur which can confuse operators of vehicles with traffic preemption equipment who lack proper training. For example, on January 2, 2005, a fire engine successfully preempted a traffic light at an intersection which included a light rail train (LRT) crossing in Hillsboro, Oregon, yet the fire engine was hit by an LRT at the crossing. A subsequent inquiry determined that the LRT operator was at fault. The LRT operator had become desensitized to the preemption signals, as the LRT was itself granted right-of-way virtually all of the time, but the system was programmed to grant higher priority to fire apparatus over an LRT. The fire engine, granted the green light before it arrived at the intersection, proceeded through while the LRT operator, failing to notice the unexpected signal to stop, ran into the fire engine and destroyed it.[4]

Vehicular Device Types


Some systems use an acoustic sensor linked to the preemption system. This can be used by itself or in conjunction with other systems. Systems of this type override the traffic signal when a specific pattern of tweets or wails from the siren of an emergency vehicle is picked up. Advantages of a system like this are that they are fairly inexpensive to integrate into existing traffic signals and the ability to use siren equipment already installed in emergency vehicles - thus dispensing with the need for special equipment. A major disadvantage is that sound waves can easily be reflected by buildings or other large vehicles present at or near an intersection, causing the "reflected" wave to trigger a preemption event in the wrong direction. Reflected waves can also create unnecessary collateral preemption events along side streets near the emergency vehicle's route. Yet another disadvantage is that the acoustic sensors can sometimes be sensitive enough to activate the preemption in response to a siren from too far away.


A vehicle that utilizes a line-of-sight traffic signal preemption system is equipped with an emitter which typically sends a narrowly-directed signal forward, towards traffic lights in front of the vehicle, to attempt to obtain right-of-way through controllable intersections before arriving at the intersection. These line-of-sight systems generally utilize an invisible infrared signal, or a visible strobe light which serves a dual purpose as an additional warning light. The emitter transmits visible flashes of light or invisible infrared pulses at a specified frequency. Traffic lights must be equipped with a compatible traffic signal preemption receiver to respond. Once the vehicle with the active emitter has passed the intersection, the receiving device no longer senses the emitter's signal, and normal operation resumes. Some systems can be implemented with varying frequencies assigned to specific types of uses, which would then allow an intersection's preemption equipment to differentiate between a fire engine and a bus sending a signal simultaneously, and then grant priority access first to the fire engine.

A notifier and receiver mounted between traffic lights.

Drawbacks of line-of-sight systems include obstructions, lighting and atmospheric conditions, and undesired activations. Obstructions may be buildings on a curving road that block visual contact with a traffic signal until very close, or perhaps a large freight truck in front of a police car blocking the traffic signal from receiving the emitter's signal from the police car. Modifying the position of the receiver or even locating it separate from the traffic signal equipment can sometimes correct this problem. Direct sunlight into a receiver may prevent it from detecting an emitter, and severe atmospheric conditions, such as heavy rain or snow, may reduce the distance at which a line-of-sight system will function. Undesired activations may occur if an emitter's signal is picked up by many traffic lights along a stretch of road, all directed to change to green in that direction, prior to the activating vehicle turning off the road, or being parked without its emitter being deactivated.

Global Positioning System

With the advent of widespread Global Positioning System (GPS) applications came the introduction of a GPS-based traffic preemption system. These systems require software and a communications platform to determine where the activating vehicle is located, in which direction it is headed, which traffic lights should be preempted, and the ability for the central application to activate the desired traffic lights promptly.

Drawbacks of GPS systems include obstructions, single point of failure exposure, atmospheric conditions, and GPS satellite availability. In dense cities with tall buildings, GPS receivers may have difficulty obtaining at least three GPS satellite signals, required for triangulation to determine location. If the primary application is not installed with redundant hardware, a single failure on the primary system controller can disable all traffic preemption functions within the entire traffic network covered by the GPS-based system. Extremely heavy cloud cover or severe weather can also adversely impact the ability of the GPS receiver from obtaining the three required satellites. Additionally, recent concerns about the health of the GPS satellite network raise the possibility that the reliability of the GPS satellite system may degrade in the future.[5]

Localized Radio Signal

Radio-based traffic-preemption systems using a local, short-range radio signal in the 900MHz band, can usually avoid the weaknesses of line-of-sight systems as well as GPS systems. A radio-based system still utilizes a directional signal transmitted from an emitter, but being radio-based, its signal is not blocked by visual obstructions, lighting or weather conditions.

Radio-based systems can offer some additional benefits: Adjustable range and collision avoidance. The operating range can be adjusted by varying the radio signal strength so that traffic lights are activated only nearby, or at greater distances. The hardware utilized by radio-based systems and installed on a vehicle is also capable of interacting with other equipped vehicles, primarily for the purpose of providing collision avoidance warnings when two or more vehicles approach each other while operating their preemption systems.

Compared to GPS systems, the cost difference may or may not be significant, as the single expense of the GPS primary application hardware and software comprises the bulk of the expense, which decreases per vehicle as more vehicles are added to the system.

Railroad preemption

Another type of preemption is railroad preemption.[6] Traffic-signal-controlled intersections next to railroad crossings on one of the roads usually have this feature. Approaching trains activate a routine where, before the train signals and gates are activated, all traffic signal phases go to red, except for the signal immediately after the train crossing, which turns green (or flashing yellow) to allow traffic on the tracks to clear (in some cases, there are auxiliary traffic signals prior to the railroad crossing which will turn red, keeping new traffic from crossing the tracks. This is in addition to the flashing lights on the crossing gates themselves). After enough time to clear the crossing, the signal will turn. The crossing lights may begin flashing and the gates lower immediately, or this might be delayed until after the traffic light turns red.

The operation of a traffic signal while a train is present may differ from municipality to municipality. In some areas, all directions will flash red, turning the intersection into an all-way stop. In other areas, the traffic parallel to the railroad track will have a green light for the duration of the train while the other directions face a red light for the duration of the train. Examples include the following:

  • The Chicago Drive/Ivanrest Avenue intersection in Grandville, Michigan, gives Chicago Drive traffic (parallel to the tracks) a flashing yellow with fiber-optic lit signs indicating "no right turn" or "no left turn" over the tracks, and Ivanrest traffic faces a solid red light. Similar fiber-optic or LED "no left turn" lights are used along 12th Avenue in Salem, Oregon.[citation needed]
  • The same thing is done to three traffic intersections on Telegraph Rd. between the Ohio state line and Monroe, Michigan. Two of these also include Right turn signals which are solid red when the Telegraph lights are blinking yellow.[citation needed]
  • In Goshen, Indiana, the signals at the intersections on Lincolnway will run normally, with the exception that oncoming traffic (across from the railroad crossing) will face "doghouse" signals with left and right arrows lit: all traffic is required to turn left or right if a train is present, to keep traffic moving.
  • At the intersection of Allen Rd. and Northline Rd. on the border of Southgate and Taylor, Michigan, a railroad track runs diagonally through the intersection from the northeast corner to the southwest. When the lights come on and the arm goes down, all lights turn red and two fiber-optic "no turn on red" signs illuminate facing Northline, since their right turners cross the tracks. A similar situation is found at the intersection of Oregon Route 10 (Farmington Road) and Lombard Street in Beaverton, Oregon.[citation needed]
  • The Middle Tennessee Blvd./ Church St. intersection in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, gives Church Street (parallel to the tracks) a green with fiber-optic lit signs indicating "no right turn" or "no left turn" over the tracks, and Middle Tennessee Blvd. traffic faces a solid red light.[citation needed]

See also


  1. ^ "Emergency vehicle traffic signal preemption system". United States Patent and Trademark Office. Retrieved October 7, 2005. 
  2. ^ Chapter 4F of the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices
  3. ^ "Gadget Buzz".,39041749,39352801,00.htm. Retrieved 2007-06-05. 
  4. ^ Accidents Point Up Dangers of Rail Transit
  5. ^ GPS satellite system 'close to breakdown' and could fail by 2010 - leading motorists straight into trouble
  6. ^ Section 4D.13 and Section 8D.07 of the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices

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