We don’t like waiting at traffic lights

traffic lights

As my mother once memorably said: “What’s the point of traffic lights? They only waste electricity!” While traffic lights are a fact of life for motorists and pedestrians, nobody likes waiting at them. In fact, any more than 30 seconds and we start fuming.

But the wait is never as long as we think it is.

A waste of time

Even so, UK research found motorists spend a fifth of their driving time waiting at red lights. This is equivalent to two days a year waiting for lights to turn green. It’s a sobering thought.

Faced with a red light, most drivers think the best response is to get as close as possible to the car in front. They think this will let them get away as quickly as possible. This is wrong. Packing closely together at traffic lights makes it harder to get a comfortable space in which to accelerate on the green. So it is wiser to leave some space.

Watch out for pedestrians

Naturally, men and women pedestrians tend to act in different ways at traffic lights. Men more frequently look at vehicles and cross more quickly than women. Women spend more time looking at the traffic lights or other pedestrians, and vary more in their crossing behaviour.

When pedestrians are out in traffic, 97% of them tend not to communicate in any way with motorists. Their communication is implied – 63% just claim their right of way by stepping on the road. Common practice is to start crossing before the light goes green, in spite of the risk.

In NSW, these are the unfortunate consequences:

Road deaths

  2018 Half year 2015-17 Average Change
Driver 188 162 +16%
Passenger 76 57 +33%
Pedestrian 63 59 +7%

The biggest increase in fatalities in the 2018 half year is in passengers, but pedestrians come in third.

Serious injuries on the road

  Year to Dec 2017 Year to Dec 2016 Change
Driver 4,256 4,501 -5%
Passenger 1,590 1,623 -2%
Pedestrian 1,110 1,100 +1%

Pedestrians are the only category, as well as pedal cyclists, to show an increase in serious injuries during 2017.

Wait wisely

Remember the delays at traffic lights are not as long as motorists and pedestrians perceive them to be.

In a NZ study, participants consistently overestimated the delay. The research found 30-40% of pedestrians were annoyed if they had to wait 6-22 seconds at lights. Some 70% were annoyed by a wait above 26 seconds. A more recent study settled on 30 seconds as the absolute acceptable maximum.

A so-called delay may just be an opportunity to do other things. Apparently, the most common activities are adjusting the stereo, adjusting the aircon and eating a snack. There is no mention of using a mobile phone, but our blog – How do you get people to stop texting? – makes it pretty clear we’re probably using that at red lights.

The safest alternative is just to do nothing and wait calmly. There are probably many motorists and pedestrians unobtrusively doing that.

Corrina Baird

Writer and expert

Corrina used to lend her car to her kids and discovered first hand what Ls, Ps and demerits mean for greenslips. After 20 years of writing and research in financial services, she’s an expert in the NSW CTP scheme. Read more about Corrina

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