Traffic lights covered? Storm shows LEDs can't melt snow, ice covering them
Energy-efficient traffic lights caked with ice and snow created bewildering conditions for drivers across the suburbs this week and contributed to at least four crashes, authorities said.
The LEDs installed in many traffic signals across the state emit a bright glow and last for years, but their low wattage gives off less heat than old-fashioned incandescent bulbs, experts explained.
That meant the lights couldn't melt the quick succession of icy rain and snow Sunday's snowstorm brought.
Between 10:45 a.m. and 1:43 p.m. Monday, eight vehicles collided in four crashes with minor injuries on Kirk Road, Fabyan Parkway and Randall Road in Batavia where the traffic lights were covered by snow, Deputy Police Chief Shawn Mazza said Wednesday.
Some lights in open areas with high winds were so obscured "that it was virtually impossible to see until you got right up to the intersection," he said.
One driver told Batavia police, "I couldn't see what color the light was, but the vehicle up front continued at speed, so I thought I would do the same,'" Mazza recounted. Unfortunately, the light was red.
The Illinois Department of Transportation owns multiple roads in the suburbs and deployed crews through the area to clear snow from traffic signals with LEDs that the state began installing 10 years ago.
Workers "will continue doing so this week," IDOT spokesman Guy Tridgell said. "There are a lot of (signals) -- almost 2,800 are maintained by IDOT."
Another complication was wind that caked snow onto lights in one direction of traffic but not the other, Kane County Traffic Operations Engineer Stephen Zulkowski said.
But don't expect governments to start tossing out the LEDs and reinstalling incandescents, which burn hot enough to prevent ice buildup. For one thing, the old bulbs are hard to find, and secondly LEDs do improve safety in most conditions, Zulkowski said.
"On foggy days they give off a nice, bright signal so you know when to stop," he said.
Tridgell stressed that obscured LEDs do not occur regularly.
"Conditions were perfect with this last weather event to experience accumulation on almost everything -- signs, power lines, trees, over-the-road digital message boards," Tridgell said. "We would not consider this is an ongoing problem."
This week, the vulnerabilities of the high-tech LEDs resulted in police, fire and public works crews resorting to old-school methods to improve visibility, like setting up temporary four-way stop signs.
In Elk Grove Village, Mayor Craig Johnson watched as police officers used a pole to scrape off snow frozen on LEDs at the busy intersection of Arlington Heights and Landmeier roads. Most of the streets lights in Elk Grove Village use LEDs, but this was the first time weather-related issues arose.
Kane County and other local governments are working on ways to retrofit LEDs to perform in all conditions, but there's "no home run" yet for solutions, Zukowski said.
In the meantime, Mazza advised drivers to be cautious at intersections with obscured traffic signals and follow the same procedures as at four-way stops.
Elk Grove's Johnson said it's created a problem for every town. "And now it's something we have to figure out how to handle in the future because it's a safety issue. It makes sense financially and environmentally, but you never realize the little things that come back to bite you."
• Daily Herald staff reporter Christopher Placek contributed to this report.