The missing sync


Dear Ace: Synchronization of traffic lights between Rio and Hydraulic roads seemed to work well for a while, but now I notice that I frequently have to make stops at one or more lights down there. Have these lights become, as Kurt Vonnegut would say, “unstuck in time”? Can Ace determine the truth behind this problem?—Erin T. Signal

Erin: Time out. Let Ace get this straight. You’re asking if he can determine the truth? Are you new in town? Ask anyone ‘round here, they’ll tell you: When it comes to Ace Atkins, not only is it that he can, but he will.

Ace knew this problem would have an effect on many of his readers, so he put the pedal to the metal and talked to Lou Hatter at the Virginia Department of Transportation. Lou explained it all to Ace in very technical traffic jargon (“failsafe mode,” “signal head,” “controller cabinet”), but here’s the gist: Yes, traffic signals can get “unstuck in time,” to use your clever Slaughterhouse-Five reference.

See, traffic engineers go out and do a review of a certain corridor, like the one you want to know about, which stretches from Hydraulic Road to Polo Grounds Road. After the review is finished, they perform an analysis to figure out the timing of the signals and the speed a driver needs to maintain to hit all green lights (usually around the posted speed limit).

A very sophisticated piece of software, as Lou kept calling it, connects all of the signals in the corridor and controls the cycle. A common way they get out of sync, though, is by “signal pre-emption devices,” like the ones emergency vehicles use. These gadgets cause the light to turn green as needed, without running through the cycle. The emergency vehicle can then pass without having to run a red light, which increases safety for all cars involved.

Lou didn’t have a clue (Ace is such a wisen-rhymer) if the signals you’re concerned about are currently out of sync, but he did assure Ace that if they are, most signals will work out their own kinks in a few cycles. And, if something needs to be manually reset, there are on-call signal technicians available 24/7. Talk about curbside service. 

You can ask Ace yourself. Intrepid investigative reporter Ace Atkins has been chasing readers’ leads for 19 years. If you have a question for Ace, e-mail it to