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Amber Warning Lights Will Save First Responder Lives

PART 2: What Emergency Warning Lights Should Do: Amber wins hands down!
How is this possible, one might ask, that motorists don’t see First Responders at the scene of an accident when there is so much light...so much extreme flashing light? Whether it’s the vehicle of a state trooper or the local sheriff, maximum flashing lights are almost always in full force at an accident zone or traffic stop, especially at night. Why are emergency personnel frequently hit by passing motorists? Why aren’t they seen? Officer Karczewski of the Illinois State Police with a dedicated team decided to find out.

It is quite a common occurrence for First Responders to be run over and killed as drivers pass through the area of an accident after dark. And when Police officers stop on the side of the road especially after the sun goes down, whether it is to pull over a driver or to help someone, there is a good chance he/she is entering a danger zone. The two prime reasons that officers are killed on the road are first, motorists fail to slow down and pull over to the left lane; they continue to drive too fast on the right putting an officer’s life at risk. Second, drivers swear they don’t see the officers directing traffic at night or those assisting the victims or even those trying to remove the wreckage. Even though, First Responders wear reflective strips on clothing, often they are still not visible at night in the location of an accident. Why is that?

ILLINOIS POLICE DEPARTMENT Study on Traffic Management

Master Sergeant Karczewski, a specialist in traffic incident management programs, and his team devised a comparative study that systematically measured how drivers reacted to different colored flashing lights are varying distances. The trial was conducted at night by 100 participants from 11pm to 3am in the morning. Often experimentation with colored lights is conducted in the confines of a laboratory under controlled conditions. That was not the case in this trial; there were two observers in the vehicle, one with a stopwatch measuring the time it took the driver to react to a flashing light at a precise distance away, and a second team member who recorded the driver’s comments about how the flashing lights appeared to them at varying distances.

Of course, the results are based on subjective data, but are relevant because they shows personal perceptions and interactions with emergency lights of those behind the wheel well into the night when individuals are tired and paying least attention.

White Flashing Lights

The color white was seen first and at the greatest distance followed by amber, red and then blue. Drivers saw the white colored light 916 feet earlier than the amber light, 1359 feet earlier than the red light, and 1932 feet sooner than the blue light. All participants observed the same sequence of color recognition of the emergency lights. In each case, white first followed by amber, red, and blue.

The white light was seen at the greatest distance, at approximately 2 miles, but when arriving at the flashing vehicle, the intense glare blinded drivers creating a negative experience. Amber colored lights received the most positive comments, while white got the most negative ones. Red and Blue ranked about the same at the low end of comments, almost none were made regarding their efficiency.

Amber Flashing Lights WIN

Amber flashing lights placed an outstanding ‘BEST!’ What was discovered is that 67% of those involved, noticed Amber Flashing Lights second, but as the motorist approached the police vehicle, they reported a more positive experience: hardly any glare and they could see the surroundings better. When the flashing Amber Traffic Advisor was switched on, as part of the experiment, indicating which way to proceed, motorists reported that they could see the amber indications clearly and ‘knew’ what to do well before they reached the area of the flashing lights. Stating that this was positive and reassuring.

The gathered information showed that too many flashing lights of the wrong colors blinded drivers, mesmerized them, and/or distracted their attention from what was happening around them. One major outcome of Officer Karczewski’s findings is that scene safety is improved by coming to an understanding of which colored emergency lights are best for given situations. The best color warning light for a stationary police vehicle, as it turned out to the team’s surprise, was AMBER.

Turn Off White Flashing Lights

The recommendations are based on Officer K’s report stating that flashing and rotating white lights should be turned off and amber traffic ‘stick’ lights, Traffic Advisors should be utilized instead. This is a radical difference from the use and demonstration of colored flashing lights that the public most often sees. The practice of demonstrating excessive lights “creates the false belief that emergency responders are protected from the cars traveling through the area of the incident,” says Officer K. This is a startling observation.

Radical though it may be, by removing stationary flashing white lights at the roadside incident, driver's’ visibility will increase, and First Responder lives will be saved. Imagine the catastrophic consequences if an officer tried to direct traffic and the motorist just didn’t see him. Unfortunately, one driver who hit and killed an officer said that he thought he had hit a traffic cone and just kept going. The lights had blinded him. What has since been realized is that too many bright, flashing colored lights at a scene of an accident have a negative effect on passing drivers, and completely defeat the purpose of those lights which is, of course, to improve visibility.

PART 2: What Emergency Warning Lights Should Do: Amber wins hands down!

Further Reading