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Science Hardware

Traffic Light Switcher Makes Critics See Red 600

An anonymous reader writes "According to a Yahoo/Washington Post article: 'It sounds like a suffering commuter's dream come true: a dashboard device that changes red traffic lights to green at the touch of a button. Police, fire and rescue vehicles have had access to such equipment for years, but now the devices are becoming available to ordinary motorists thanks to advances in technology and a little help from the Internet. Safety advocates are outraged, and news accounts in Michigan last week led to politicians there seeking a ban on the gadgets'." Update: 11/06 02:25 GMT by S : A previous Slashdot story mentions the device, though not the Michigan legislature's subsequent ire.
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Traffic Light Switcher Makes Critics See Red

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  • by NewWaveNet ( 584716 ) <> on Wednesday November 05, 2003 @10:23PM (#7403223) Homepage Journal
    why these were legal for non-emergency sale in the first place?
  • by Dancin_Santa ( 265275 ) <> on Wednesday November 05, 2003 @10:24PM (#7403232) Journal
    Problem solved.
  • by Rude Turnip ( 49495 ) <valuation&gmail,com> on Wednesday November 05, 2003 @10:25PM (#7403242)
    Because things are legal in the US until they're made illegal, instead of the other way around.
  • Re:I want one! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by rtaylor ( 70602 ) on Wednesday November 05, 2003 @10:25PM (#7403245) Homepage
    Funny thing, it'll only actually work for the first 100 people. After that, traffic will be substantially slower due to the lights being out of sync that it'll be slower for everyone.

    Kinda like sitting in the middle of an intersection on a red. Sure, you were 20 feet ahead of those behind you but the only reason you're stuck in the intersection is the guy 3 blocks up blocking your route.

    It's tough, but if everyone cleaned up their driving habits, everyone would be home 5 or 10 minutes earlier rather than just the poor drivers getting home 2 to 3 minutes earlier.
  • Re:Is this a dupe? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by NewWaveNet ( 584716 ) <> on Wednesday November 05, 2003 @10:26PM (#7403251) Homepage Journal
    You may note that this story is a follow up about how legislatures are pissed. But then again, you may note that you didn't read the story before commenting.
  • flash demo (Score:5, Insightful)

    by glassesmonkey ( 684291 ) * on Wednesday November 05, 2003 @10:27PM (#7403263) Homepage Journal
    MIRT, 3M Opticom(R), and Tomar Strobecom(R) traffic signal preemption are optically-based communications systems and the main brands of these systems.

    Clearly this is illegal (or soon will be) and stupid waste of the public's time and money to refit this lights to stop this silly company. FAC of America located out of Minn. runs websites such as TheMIRT [] and Guns'N Stuff [] The are allowing people to be resellers for $300/unit.

    There is a flash "demo" of the MIRT in action here []
  • by NewWaveNet ( 584716 ) <> on Wednesday November 05, 2003 @10:28PM (#7403272) Homepage Journal
    Yeah, but a ban on devices that have the sole purpose of changing lights doesn't seem like something they should sit around and wait for companies to start selling to the public. It's not like they didn't know it was going to happen.
  • Bad, bad bad! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by roninmagus ( 721889 ) on Wednesday November 05, 2003 @10:32PM (#7403307)
    These devices could be contrasted with radar/laser detectors.

    I think the radar/laser detectors are fine, but the devices which allow people to actually change the system should not be allowed.

    Radar/Laser detectors serve a good purpose. Yes, they allow people to "undermine" the law by getting around traffic tickets (if you're alert,) but they also slow down traffic when an officer is nearby. The people with the radar detectors slow down when an officer is running radar nearby, and therefore drive safer because they don't want a ticket.

    However, devices like the ones coming now actually affect the system rather than circumvent it. My having a radar detector does not affecy anyone but me. But one that allows me to change traffic lights in my favor affects the other people on the road!

    This is all IMHO.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday November 05, 2003 @10:32PM (#7403308)
    This kind of security thinking is akin to hiding your head in the sand. FIX THE PROBLEM! Don't legislate bans on exploits. DESIGN SUCH THINGS SECURELY IN THE FIRST PLACE! It wouldn't be that hard to have developed it with a cryptographically secure access code system in the first place. Sheesh!
  • Re:I want one! (Score:2, Insightful)

    by IDreamInCode ( 672260 ) on Wednesday November 05, 2003 @10:33PM (#7403309)
    What we really need to do is program the lights so that traffic continues to move at the most efficient pace possible. I've sat at so many lights that don't turn green for minutes and there is NO one coming the other direction, that pisses me off to no end.
  • by Lord Kano ( 13027 ) on Wednesday November 05, 2003 @10:34PM (#7403318) Homepage Journal
    I'll speak on this again.

    While these politicians are at it, why not mandate fuel governors for all cars to prevent them from speeding?

    Why not mandate RFID for everyone so that the police can tell where you are when you're a suspect in a crime?

    I can understand making people responsible for using such a device, but banning them won't do any more good than those states that banned radar detectors.

  • Simple solution... (Score:2, Insightful)

    by stubear ( 130454 ) on Wednesday November 05, 2003 @10:35PM (#7403336)
    ...have the change event turn all the lights in the intersection go red. Emergency vehicles will allowed to pass through the intersection AND the intersection will be cleared of any vehicles. Who would want a device that turns lights at an intersection all red? Problem solved.
  • by mooface ( 674033 ) on Wednesday November 05, 2003 @10:36PM (#7403341)
    ...this is probably the first time I've thought to myself: why don't people just leave this alone? It's really a public safety issue, and there is no real reason anyone outside of police, fire, etc have to have this device.

    It's not amusing. It's just wrong.

  • by forevermore ( 582201 ) on Wednesday November 05, 2003 @10:36PM (#7403344) Homepage
    I was going to comment on this, too; but more along the lines of "changing lights isn't NEW". In the '90's, it was common to see strobe detectors attached to traffic light poles all over the place, but as I understand it, so many civilians purchased devices that would hit the proper strobe frequencies that that the cities had to abandon use of the devices. Sometimes similar technology is used, but instead of turning the lights green, it sets ALL lights in the intersection to red, and emergency vehicles just drive on the wrong side of the road (this has safety concerns, and doesn't seem to be practiced very often).

    Honestly, with the availability of technologies like bluetooth and other encrypted wireless technologies, it shouldn't be hard to just encode a daily/weekly-changing code into the signals and give it out to emergency vehicles as needed.

    That, and teaching drivers how to behave around those flashing lights (ie. pull over to the RIGHT if you are in the US - I've seen too many people on the freeway pull left, only to block an ambulance that was trying to get around traffic by driving on the shoulder).

  • solution (Score:3, Insightful)

    by ratfynk ( 456467 ) on Wednesday November 05, 2003 @10:39PM (#7403360) Journal
    simply make the traffic controls go red in all directions only like in Canada. EOP Alot of pissed of motorists but at least emergency vehicles will still have the right of way. Totally UnAmerican idea though it is too simple and effective! The people who manufacture and sell the devices will just go out of business like they should.
  • Problem... (Score:2, Insightful)

    by herrvinny ( 698679 ) on Wednesday November 05, 2003 @10:40PM (#7403363)
    Then what prevents someone from installing 5-6 devices on one car and skewing the requests the light gets?
  • by jeff_d_schneider ( 697057 ) on Wednesday November 05, 2003 @10:47PM (#7403414)

    I'm actually sitting at the fire station tonight pulling a duty shift for the volunteer squad.

    You have NO idea how much it would save in time and safety concerns if everyone would pull to the RIGHT (in the US). G

    lad to know there's at least one person out there who gets it!
  • Laws won't work (Score:2, Insightful)

    by gcaseye6677 ( 694805 ) on Wednesday November 05, 2003 @10:57PM (#7403483)
    Sure, you can ban these things. Every state will ban them if they become popular. But anyone who gets something like this is not the type of person that is concerned about laws. Think about it, who would buy one of these things? Someone who routinely ignores speed limits, tailgates, runs lights whenever possible. The prospect of paying a fine just won't deter them.
  • by tz ( 130773 ) on Wednesday November 05, 2003 @11:05PM (#7403527)
    First, other emergency vehicles can or should be able to go through red lights. Motorists might not cooperate though since if they see all-red they may treat it as a 4-way stop.

    They could however instead flash red and yellow alternately and quickly so that it would mean EXACTLY and ONLY that an emergency vehicle is approaching and ALL ways need to stop to give it right of way.

    Gridlock isn't dependent on the traffic lights (remembering various stories about New York where the fire engines were in the middle of a block and it would take 30 minutes to go just over a mile.
  • This kind of security thinking is akin to hiding your head in the sand. FIX THE PROBLEM! Don't legislate bans on exploits. DESIGN SUCH THINGS SECURELY IN THE FIRST PLACE! It wouldn't be that hard to have developed it with a cryptographically secure access code system in the first place. Sheesh!

    You're right. In fact, I'm going to take your prinicle to heart and exploit the weakness in the locks of your residence. Since you clearly believe that if the lock isn't adequate then the laws shouldn't take effect, I am doing nothing you shouldn't fully expect. Five tumbler locks? Come on! You should have 3ft thick concrete walls, thick steel doors with multiple jamb pins, and a cryptographically secure electric lock which requires something you have, something you know, and something you are. Actually, since that makes you the weak link you shouldn't even give yourself access.

    Anarchy is fun to think about intellectually, but at the end of the day I don't want to have to do my own policing, I don't want to make my life cumbersome, and I don't want more than a few percent chance of being robbed/burgled in my life.

    Of course, my web server is secured out the yin yang, because police protection does not extend to that area of my life... yet.

  • Thats rediculous (Score:4, Insightful)

    by tgd ( 2822 ) on Wednesday November 05, 2003 @11:06PM (#7403540)
    Just because you can do something doesn't make it right or legal.

    If the government tells you you can't use one of those, its real simple, don't use them. Use it and suffer the penalty!

    Why the hell should the taxpayers shoulder the massive costs of building a device like that which would be completely immune to misuse? Does it add $1000 per? $10000 per? How much per emergency vehicle? In a town of ten or twenty thousand people with, say, 30 lights, you want the town to give up a teacher or ten because you've got some high and mighty belief that if people CAN do something they SHOULD?

    Thats not Score:4 Insightful, it should be Score:0 Retarded.
  • by IM6100 ( 692796 ) <> on Wednesday November 05, 2003 @11:07PM (#7403544)
    I've never understood why states banned radar detectors.

    What they should have done was come up with an inexpensive radar simulator device. It wouldn't be hard, and it would be something that cost maybe $10 to produce in quantity.

    Then the police could distribute them all around the streets and highways. They would be little black boxes and easy to conceal.

    They would emit a signal that mimics a police radar. They would cause people who have radar detectors to slow down.

    Since they'd probably be even cheaper than speed limit signs, they'd fill a useful and cost effective function.

    I've thought about building a 'renegade' illegal one. It'd be handy when I want to pass somebody who's going above the speed limit and has a radar detector.
  • by oddbudman ( 599695 ) on Wednesday November 05, 2003 @11:11PM (#7403567) Journal
    In this day and age why don't we just start looking for a better solution rather than trying to outlaw these transmitters.

    Surely some sort of RFID tag could be fitted to emergency vehicles that would allow for traffic signal control without extraordinary costs. Retrofitting this new technology to the pre-existing traffic intersection control probably wouldn't be too hard either.

    Additionally this technology could be used to inform regular vehicles that there is an emergency vehicle in the area. (Provided vehicles were fitted with a suitable receiver.)
  • by Mr. No Skills ( 591753 ) <lskywalker@hotma i l .com> on Wednesday November 05, 2003 @11:20PM (#7403614) Journal
    I think the black boxes they are selling are just for people dumb enough to think they work.

    It might be more of a real problem in some local areas. At least in the part of Maryland I'm in (and according to the printed newspaper article), a number of the intersections do switch based on this device. While there are competing systems, apparently some of them have no authentication mechanism. The detector is essentially like a remote control for the television -- blink in the right way and it trips.

    While I'm not in favor of hacking into light control systems, it doesn't seem like its really much of a hack (as others have posted the details). If a municipality has installed a system this simple to fool, shame on them for not installing some best practices on locking this down. And, if the DOT has approved a system that doesn't require authentication, they probably need to re-evaluate their approval methods.

  • the solution (Score:1, Insightful)

    by anaphora ( 680342 ) * on Wednesday November 05, 2003 @11:48PM (#7403761) Journal
    Install video cameras on the top of every light that doesn't already have them. When the device is triggered, take a nice large picture of the triggering car's license plate. If it's an emergency vehicle, then it's okay. If you notice an emergency vehicle doing this often, it could be signs that a policeman is throwing on his flashers just to get through the lights (I've seen it done before.)
  • by ONU CS Geek ( 323473 ) <> on Thursday November 06, 2003 @12:05AM (#7403863) Homepage
    Opticom is 3M's solution for priority/preemptive right of way control--it has two modes, depending on what type of traffic you are. One is the "priority" right of way. If you're sitting at an intersection, and the light is red, and this comes up, you will get a shorter red, or a longer green light time when you're coming upon the light and it's green. This was kinda designed for public transit (e.g., buses), where idle time costs the city money in fuel.

    The next section is something called the pre-emptive right of way, where the traffic lights that are not the same path as the signal is coming from, get a red light. The reason for this, is so in case the vehicle can make a left turn without worrying about oncoming traffic.

    The system works in two parts--one's a transmitter, the other's an receiver, and the system can be set for thousands of possible codes. (for vehicle identification). the odds of something like this working, right out of the box, is very'd need to get a correct code, and hope that no one notices a lot of new entries when it logs.

    There is a comapny that makes legitimate Opticom receivers, for 'testing' purposes...however, their testing eqipment is very limited. They do make handheld opticom transmitters, however, they'll only sell them to you if you're a law enforcement/governmnet agency.

  • The wrong design (Score:2, Insightful)

    by camperslo ( 704715 ) on Thursday November 06, 2003 @12:08AM (#7403876)
    They should have designed the systems such that a trigger would cause the light to go RED in all directions. The cross traffic would stop, and any real emergency response vehicle could run the red, of course being given authority to do so in emergencies.

    I'm surprised I haven't seen SPAM offering these thing yet.
  • by ScottSpeaks! ( 707844 ) on Thursday November 06, 2003 @12:11AM (#7403892) Homepage Journal
    I thought the obvious point of the question was to ask why that law was never enacted. Unauthorized use of this technology is, after all, a rather obvious consequence of it A) existing, and B) being in use.

    This isn't like designer drugs (where the government has to play catch-up with the inventors), because it was through government agencies that this technology was developed and put into use in the first place. They knew about it; they should have had the sense to officially limit its use.

  • The real problem (Score:3, Insightful)

    by OverkillTASF ( 670675 ) on Thursday November 06, 2003 @12:38AM (#7404015)
    All this talk about the cities being at fault for not designing a system that wasn't so easily "hacked"... You know what? That's not the problem. The problem is all the fucktards running around who have no regard for anyone else. The government gets to try to keep the rest of us happy due to a few idiots' actions, and it costs US money. I'm sick and tired of my tax dollars going toward the next mundane project because some script kiddies got together in daddy's garage and dedicated 2 days of their lives to perfecting a work around to the city traffic system. How the hell can you blame the cities? It's not exactly cheap to make something impenatrable to every kind of attack. There's definitely a steep curve to that, in fact. The PROBLEM is the people that buy the things, the people that manufacture the things, and every one of you 12 year old "M$ suX! Linux is t3h be57! D0wn w17h 7He gR33dY C0rP0ra7ion5!!!" fucktards who are so obsessed with the idea of anarchy and having a right to break anything that is breakable. Get a life. Grow up. And don't mess with my damn stoplights. I'm sick of paying for workarounds for your pointless and inconsiderate tampering. Get a job.
  • by MrPerfekt ( 414248 ) on Thursday November 06, 2003 @01:11AM (#7404183) Homepage Journal
    Quite simply this unauthenticated method of changing something so vital to our daily life is idiotic. Beyond that, companies that make this device and market it them to the average consumer as a "Hey, take advantage of the system" product should have the FBI on their door.

    It all comes down to morals and concious. This is not some debacle about copyright, this is about abusing something that actually serves a good purpose for everyone (when have you heard someone complain about the purpose, the purpose not the actual function, of the stop light?). It's bizarre that some people could use this and actually feel good about it.
  • Interesting (Score:4, Insightful)

    by cubicledrone ( 681598 ) on Thursday November 06, 2003 @01:16AM (#7404204)
    The answer to traffic is telecommuting. Immense tax breaks should be given to businesses that allow their employees to telecommute at least three days a week. There is no reason for a room full of cubicles when those people could be working from home or somewhere else so they aren't all on the freeway at 7:30AM and 5:30PM.

    Naturally, middle-management, in their rush to control everything and to expect their highly qualified and exhaustively interviewed employees to become irresponsible morons the moment they have left the room, will claim telecommuting cannot ever be approved and go on to schedule another meeting.

  • Re:Unlike England (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Nexus Seven ( 112882 ) on Thursday November 06, 2003 @01:40AM (#7404308)
    *Cough* Bullshit

    The Radiocommunications Agency (RA) owns the radio frequency spectrum in the UK. Its an agency of the Department of Trade and Industry.

    The government has no control over the usage of infrared communications.

    The "British Post Office" has nothing whatsoever to do with telecommunications in England, Scotland, or anywhere else. It did many years ago, before its telecoms and mail services were split up and privatized

    Also - can you provide a reference for this laser broadcast technology? Why, for example, is it not in common usage?
  • by drinkypoo ( 153816 ) <> on Thursday November 06, 2003 @02:48AM (#7404691) Homepage Journal
    You know what would let people get home in a timely fashion? If people could merge, if people let people merge (within reason), and if people always drove faster in the fast lane. If each lane went 5mph faster than each previous lane, and people merged well (and early), then even in the very worst traffic situations, people would be moving. Unfortunately, this seems to be well beyond the range of the average driver.
  • by tmortn ( 630092 ) on Thursday November 06, 2003 @03:51AM (#7404956) Homepage
    Hmm if its IR and its a coded signal I would imagine either the device makes a repetitive signal or it has a derivation from its normal pulse... so all you would have to do is monitor an intersection in the IR and take note of emergency vehicles and identify the sequence of IR pulses and you will have the 'code'. As long as its IR and its just based on recieving the proper pulses and those proper pulses are blasted about something like this will be possible.... granted that kind of monitoring is non-trivial and it would take some dedication to finding a signal in use when you could monitor it properly. Just makes it like all hacks, its possible if you really want to do it.

    A more secure approach would probably be along the idea of a transponder system linked to GPS with only authorised vehicles emitting a code will be allowed to change the light.... IE the light only has a dummy sensor and a network connection.. when it detects a signal it sends a query and a remote system to deermins if a valid gps ID is in the vicinity.. this way the GPS vehicle ID is not being transmitted 'in the clear' over IR. And you have to spoof two systems and have your vehicle entered in a database capable of tracking your location... right. Of course it would likely have a backup mode of just accepting signals if the querry timed out or something.... but a random combined denial attack and signal generation seems a bit of a stretch .
  • by misterpies ( 632880 ) on Thursday November 06, 2003 @07:41AM (#7405644)
    If it were true, the above would be very interesting. But it's complete and utter bullshit.

    First of all, the Post Office in the UK has had nothing to do with regulating e/m waves of any frequency since 1969.

    Secondly, the BBC has not had a monopoly on broadcast radio in the UK since 1972. There are many more commercial, privately-owned stations than BBC stations across the country.

    Thirdly, radio transmission by shining an infra-red vertically upwards? Hello? Moderators, are you smoking crack. Here's a few reasons why it couldn't work:

    * Lower light frequencies, including infra-red light, are not scattered much by the atmosphere. That's why sunsets are red and the sky is blue: blue light is scattered all over the sky, red light passes more or less straight through.

    * During the daytime at least, any infra-red signal from a scattered laser beam would be hopelessly swamped by infra-red coming from the sun (not to mention other IR sources in a city, i.e. anything hot)

    * For this to stand a chance of working therefore, the laser beam would have to be very powerful. As noted above, the BBC's radio monopoly ended in 1972 and Post-Office regulation in 1969. Please tell me, what private individuals had access to powerful lasers in the 1960s? Dr Evil?

    So please, moderators, don't mod up a story because it seems superficially plausible. Stop and think about it for a bit. 5 minutes Googling is usually sufficient to establish veracity.
  • by ajs318 ( 655362 ) <`sd_resp2' `at' `'> on Thursday November 06, 2003 @08:28AM (#7405833)
    This device does not need a specific ban, as it probably is already illegal to use except in limited circumstances. Think about it. If you turn your traffic lights to green, it stands to reason that you are turning the other road's lights to red. This would almost certainly constitute "interfering with the progress of other road users without due cause" -- the same catch-all that makes it an offence to park too near an intersection. Therefore, using this device probably already contravenes most countries' Highway Codes, and does not need a specific law against it. "Authorised users" would simply mean anyone who has due cause to interfere with other road users, i.e. fire engines, abulances &c. Ting! Next, please.
  • by cdrudge ( 68377 ) on Thursday November 06, 2003 @08:59AM (#7405968) Homepage
    Excuse me sir, I think you dropped your foil hat a little ways back there...

I've got a bad feeling about this.