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Posted on Mon, Dec 21, 2009 : 10:43 a.m.

LED traffic lights blamed for dozens of accidents and at least one death

By Ryan J. Stanton

The Associated Press reports cities around the country that have installed energy-efficient traffic lights are discovering their downside: The LED bulbs don't burn hot enough to melt snow and can become crusted over in a storm.


This December 2009 image made from video provided by WLUK-TV Green Bay shows a wrecker getting ready to tow away a car that was involved in an accident in Green Bay, Wisc., after a snow storm. One downside to LED lights many communities are installing to replace older incandescent bulbs is they don't melt snow very well.

AP Photo

It's a problem blamed for dozens of accidents and at least one death, the AP reports.

Officials at the Washtenaw County Road Commission say they've experienced the same crusting effect from LED traffic lights, though there are no known accidents caused as a result.

"We started switching over our signals to LEDs in 2002, and since then we've had people called out to (brush off traffic lights when caked over with snow or ice)," said Roy Townsend, county highway engineer.

Townsend said the Road Commission has sent personnel out to clean off a traffic light only on rare occasions - maybe twice in seven years. He said it hasn't proven to be enough of a problem to outweigh the benefits of LED lights: They're saving the Road Commission more than $40,000 a year in energy costs and last 10 to 15 years. The old incandescent bulbs burned out every year and had to be changed.

Read the AP's report here.

Ryan J. Stanton covers government for Reach him at or 734-623-2529.



Tue, Dec 22, 2009 : 12:49 p.m.

Well, it seems few people know the rules of the road. Maybe we should make all intersectons four-way stops since a green light still doesn't guarantee that I do, indeed, have the right-of-way.


Tue, Dec 22, 2009 : 9:53 a.m.

You're supposed to slow down and look on all directions everytime you enter an intersection, regardless of the conditions day or night. Just because you have the right away with a green light doesn't mean that it's always safe to cross. If there's no light or stop signs it doesn't mean you can cross without assuming the cross traffic will stop. Gee no wonder this state has so many accidents.


Tue, Dec 22, 2009 : 8:19 a.m.

Jake, I'm glad you noticed my sarcasm. I was referring to the recent record low temperatures and over 30 deaths in Europe, as well as the 15+ inches of snow in eastern USA. (Oh, of course, it's the El Nino). And Al Gore maintains that the Arctic will be Ice Free in a few years? What do these guys take us for -- kindergardeners? However, I am a BIG supporter of LED's, and own a TON of LED-related stocks. Hope they continue to use them everywhere. Traffic lights are a relatively small portion of the LED market, but I hope they find a solution to the occasional freezing issue.

Jake C

Tue, Dec 22, 2009 : 1:52 a.m.

Headlights? Street lights? Common sense? And thanks @larry for a handy presentation of the silliest right-wing talking point du jour. "How can global warming possibly be real when it's current cold outside? I don't understand the difference between global climate trends and the local 24-hour weather forecast!"


Mon, Dec 21, 2009 : 6:06 p.m.

I don't see how suggesting to treat this situation as a 4-way stop can apply. Odds are only one side of the traffic light is obscured. The drivers facing the other (non-obscured) sides have no idea one is obscured so how would they know to treat the situation as a 4-way stop?


Mon, Dec 21, 2009 : 5:39 p.m.

And I thought we were all worried about Global Warming? What's all this fuss about freezing?


Mon, Dec 21, 2009 : 2:27 p.m.

I agree with Kevin and the likes, it really is the same kind of situation when the bulb burns out, when the power is out, or if the signal is not working for some other reason. Accidents will always happen, but one death due to snow covering of an LED light - I'm sorry for that person's family however I think we are looking at a statistic that is skewed by the larger data. (see links in comments above) I'm not even sure it constitutes things like RAIN/X or some other idea - except maybe in wind prone or wet snow areas where the snow and ice can cake on the lenses. I am glad to see that the costs have been pointed out, however they are very very small costs compared to the costs of traditional lights (and their related deaths)

Patrick Haggood

Mon, Dec 21, 2009 : 1:55 p.m.

@Macabre Sunset: re difficulty to discern green - a driver really should know that that if the glowing light is on the bottom of the vertical stack then it's the green one, and if the top light is glowing it's the red one. Color is really there just to catch your eye, but it's not the only information conveyed by the signal. @ Jafo04 - yes, I am continually amazed/frustrated/driving-white-knuckled at how the concept of '4-way stop' is incomprehensible to some drivers.


Mon, Dec 21, 2009 : 1:37 p.m.

Hmmm. Anyone see General Electric's "engineered" Santa sleigh ads? In it the first thing they mention is their "icephobic" coatings. Thes superhydrophobic nano particle coatings repel water and ice. Seems like a natural application here if the coating is durable over the life of the lights. See:


Mon, Dec 21, 2009 : 1:32 p.m.

Lights shouldn't be blamed for sloppy and irresponsible driving.

Macabre Sunset

Mon, Dec 21, 2009 : 1:24 p.m.

This will require driver education. What people don't seem to understand is that during the daytime when there's a lot of snow, there's a lot of glare. In that glare, we don't see green nearly as well. So when we approach a light and don't see a color clearly, we assume green. Wrong, I know. But we're doing it unconsciously. That explains the severity of these accidents. How do we educate people to stop assuming green in these cases? I know I will be more careful myself, knowing about this. But what makes this particularly hard is that only one direction is obscured in these case, so while I see a green light working properly, the cross-traffic might not see anything. Can't exactly stop on green to make certain. Anyway, while the savings is nice, I would imagine that will be short-lived. The insurance companies will soon make coverage for cities using the LEDs much more expensive.

Kevin Bolon

Mon, Dec 21, 2009 : 1:14 p.m.

And how many traffic deaths are caused when a light is not functioning because the incandescent bulb burned out? When a light burns out, the signal detects a malfunction, and causes one direction to flash red, and the other to flash yellow. Granted, I don't know if it's because of a bulb burnout, but I did a quick search and found several severe accidents in the past month caused by malfunctioning traffic signals. Let's try to look at this issue in terms of overall safety. Because LED lights don't burn out (they do get dimmer after many years) we should consider that some lives may be saved by them. Of course at the same time we should keep working to fix the issue of snow sticking to LEDs.


Mon, Dec 21, 2009 : 12:50 p.m.

Rain-X, works every time.

Jake C

Mon, Dec 21, 2009 : 12:34 p.m.

@D: Whoops, sorry I misread that your comment was asking specifically about the *labor* costs. It would be good to know what that is exactly!

Jake C

Mon, Dec 21, 2009 : 12:31 p.m.

@d: The article says pretty clearly that the county saves about $40k per year in energy costs, not to mention the labor and materials savings from only having to replace an LED bulb every 10-15 years, compared with a much shorter lifespan for traditional bulbs of about a year.. Even if the county *does* occasionally have to send out someone to clean off a light (which like the article says, they have only had to do "maybe twice in seven years") then these LED bulbs are quite clearly paying for themselves many times over.. We should always be concerned about having an optimal balance of safety, convenience, and cost efficiency, but this is an incredibly minor thing to be worried about. I saw 4 cars in a ditch on M-14 on Saturday, and that had nothing to do with traffic lights -- just people driving too fast for slippery conditions. Hell, if some of that $40,000 saved on electricity can go towards additional road salt for treacherous stretches of highways, we'll save money *and* lives!

John Galt

Mon, Dec 21, 2009 : 12:08 p.m.

The law of unintended consequences. Looks like a way for someone to make some money with a new solution to this problem. Until then, perhaps these lights should be restricted to southern/warmer climates.


Mon, Dec 21, 2009 : 11:57 a.m.

Yes please blame the lights... not the driver who approaches an intersection with a malfunctioning light. By all means do not treat it like a four-way stop just keep going... SLOW DOWN, SHUT UP and DRIVE. When you screw up don't blame the lights.


Mon, Dec 21, 2009 : 11:53 a.m.

Every new technology has a downside. But, there is also a need for common sense, for example stopping at intersections when the lights are not visible and treating them like stop signs. Similar to what one might do if the power went out.


Mon, Dec 21, 2009 : 11:43 a.m.

I guess as long as the Road Commission is saving money then people totalling their cars or losing their lives isn't much of a concern.


Mon, Dec 21, 2009 : 11:38 a.m.

What about a little WD-40 on the glass?