What are the lights placed above traffic signals?

(WHTM/NEXSTAR) – Many traffic lights located across the United States have a small light placed between or parked next to traffic lights. Sometimes you see it flashing when emergency vehicles pass by.

So, what are they?

These are called priority or pre-emption signals. The lights are part of a system that allows the vehicle operator to override the normal operation of a traffic signal.

Emergency Vehicle Prevention (EVP) systems were first installed in Maricopa County, Arizona in the early 1980s with the hope that they would reduce response times. Fire trucks and other emergency vehicles are equipped with emitters that communicate with receivers on traffic lights.

When the emitter is activated, the device will cause the traffic lights in the vehicle’s path to immediately turn and yield the right of way in the direction the vehicle is traveling.

These proactive indicators allow emergency vehicles to reach scenes faster and clear the way for the vehicle. It can also improve safety by giving a red light to all other lights at an intersection, so that traffic does not obstruct an emergency vehicle.

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Many protective indicators have confirmation lights installed on them. This is the white light that people see when they are activated. The light can be flashing or steady, both of which have different meanings.

In Pennsylvania, for example, if the light is steady it means the signal has been preempted and will give a green light to signal in that direction. However, if the light is flashing, it means that the signal has been preempted to give the green light in a different direction.

Some of these systems use a line-of-sight system, which allows a narrow signal to be directed ahead at traffic lights in front of the vehicle to obtain the right of way. Others use GPS and others use a radio signal to obtain the same right of way.

Georgia South Medical Center, which announced in June 2023 that it would equip all of its ambulances with GPS-ready EVP devices to help responders make traffic stops as they rush to an emergency.

“This innovative technology makes ambulance responses safer for everyone,” Michael Coleman, chief of South Georgia EMS Medical Center, said in a statement.

The hospital group found that the devices reduced response time by an average of 11 seconds per traffic light.

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