We’ve all been there. You’re stopped at a red light, it finally turns green, but the driver in front of you doesn’t seem to notice and doesn’t pull forward. You watch helplessly as the light changes to yellow, then red.
“At that point usually the driver realizes that they should have moved up by now, and sometimes they get through, sometimes they don’t,” says Brian Goldberg, a traffic signal engineer with the City of Austin. “But everyone who’s stuck behind them gets stopped at the light.”
Goldberg and other transportation officials say, more often than not, distracted driving is the culprit for these kinds of delays at Austin's traffic signals.
Eighty-five percent of the city’s traffic signals are outfitted with vehicle detection systems. When the sensor picks up a car at the intersection, it directs the light to stay green for longer. Goldberg says the detection area varies by signal, but it’s usually about 50 feet back from the light. He says if one driver fails to pull up, it can throw a wrench in the whole system.
“There was one spot I was sitting at that I saw a long queue, and it kept stacking up. It was 7:30 in the morning, so everyone was leaving their houses and headed to work, and the third car didn’t pull up, and I watched the signal turn red on everyone,” Goldberg says. “The queue keeps extending, and I’m seeing it go back and back, all the way up the road out of sight.”
While it’s illegal to use your phone while driving in Austin, motorists are allowed to talk and text at a full stop. So, if you’re absorbed in your iMessages at a red light, how do you make sure you’re in tune with signal changes at just the right moment? Detective Patrick Oborski with the Austin Police Department offers simple advice: pay attention.
“I don’t mind you texting and everything like that, but kind of pay attention to your surroundings, and don’t be so engrossed in your phone that you have no idea what else is going on,” he says.
Beyond being an annoyance, Oborski says failing to pull up to a green light is a traffic violation. You could be pulled over and cited for impeding a roadway.