Countdown Timer On Traffic Lights

This is a photo I took when I first lived in China in 2002, in the southern province of Guangdong: a countdown timer on the traffic lights:

countdown timer on timed lights

I was really taken with the countdown display on the traffic lights, showing how many seconds were left before the lights went green. How simple, yet elegant. Why hadn’t I seen this before?

It lets you know exactly how long you have to wait. No sitting there on tenterhooks, waiting for that green light – you can relax a little, which should improve your concentration when you’re actually driving. No being caught out by the light suddenly changing to green – you know exactly when it’s going to happen.

There’s an added benefit: everyone knows how much time they have and, this being China, you get to see all sorts of interesting behavior: people rearranging their load, sending a text message and goodness knows what else.

Of course, this only works with timed traffic lights. Here in Brisbane, the lights have had sensors for 15 years or so: the time a red light shows is variable, so this wouldn’t work. Still, I lived in Denver a year or so before I moved to China and they had a lot of timed traffic lights but no display.

I thought this quite ingenious of the Chinese. Have you seen any other ingenious ‘inventions’ in China?

3 Responses

  1. Pingback: Nudge blog · Countdown to red vs. countdown to green

  2. L

    But don’t forget to mention the “H” manual override.

    But interestingly is a change in behavior over the time and region.

    I remember in 2003 everyone stopped engines waiting a red traffic lights in the north to save some gas. Nowerdays, nobody does.
    But it might come back, with the start-stop-automatic, I know from modern cars in Germany.

  3. hugo

    This may not be a safe design, when driver see the timer close to 1, it will encourage driver speed up in the intersection, and encourage more ppl running the red light. When we put dms(dynamic message sign) on local street, when your driving speed is very fast, it may not show your true speed but instead it will show caution message such as “SLOW DOWN”, that is because some crazy driver may want to set up a speed record (like 100 mph) on the DMS; therefore the dms not slow ppl down but speed ppl up, for this reason the dms will only show “slow down” when you top the speed limit. Same concept when you design traffic light, you dont want to encourage ppl to speed up by counting down!

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