Are there lights ahead?

2009-02-20 00:00

Bent robot poles, damaged cables, malfunctioning computers, an unreliable power supply and high rainfall are just some of the reasons why Durban’s traffic lights keep malfunctioning. In fact, more than 1 700 faults have been reported since Christmas and it could be months before things improve.

According to Carlos Esteves, deputy head of road systems management, exhausted and over-stretched staff are “regularly attacked” and insulted by frustrated motorists when trying to solve problems.

Many of the problems are out of their control.

Skills and resources are in short supply, mainly because the city has grown too quickly. Three years ago, the municipality installed 10 new signals a year. Now, it is installing 30.

Esteves said that of the 1 700 faults, 27% were either false alarms or instances when systems eventually reset themselves, 18% involved flashing signals, 12% were attributed to power failures and six percent resulted from cable theft. Each intersection could have three to four faults at a time.

Esteves said Durban’s biggest problems are the Edwin Swales-N2, Umgeni Road-N2, kwaMashu Highway-N2 intersections and the Berea-Musgrave road couplet. The stretch along the M7 linking South Coast Road, Titren and Bellair roads is a “perennial problem” because of vandalism and cable thefts.

He divided Durban’s robot problems into three — broken equipment, badly synchronised lights and malfunctioning computers that control intersections.

He said his department has appointed teams to deal with fused bulbs, damaged robot faces and bent poles. Three years ago, just 200 poles were damaged per year compared to 450 at present. The municipality has numbered robot poles and intends building barriers to protect the most vulnerable.

Esteves said tenders will be awarded in May to local private contractors to maintain groups of between 150 and 200 intersections. However, they will begin to make an impression only by June.

Badly phased traffic lights and log-jammed intersections were blamed on “connectivity” problems.

A sophisticated “scoot” automatic sensing system measures traffic concentrations via numerous sensors in the roads. Their messages are relayed to an on-site computer that automatically adjusts phasings. But the system malfunctions when cables are damaged, often during digging to replace water pipes and telecommunications cables or to repair roads and pavements.

The slightest nick coupled with heavy rain or a power surge can force the system to revert to the out-of-date back-up at the roadside. Simply locating damaged cables requires sophisticated equipment and skilled staff.

In addition, computers at intersections have proved overly sensitive and are susceptible to high rainfall, power surges and even computer bugs. When the computer senses what it believes is a problem, it switches to “emergency mode” and lights start flashing.

The current software is not totally compatible with the new LED system that is being introduced across the city ahead of 2010 as it uses different voltages. Electricity cuts are fine when the power returns with a “clean curve” and signals automatically reset themselves. When this does not happen, the system either pops a fuse or begins flashing as a safety mechanism.

Esteves said software problems have been referred to the Cape Town suppliers so “patches” can be created — but these have to be rolled out to over 750 intersections. A patch could also “knock out” other safety monitors, starting the emergency process all over again.

“That is why we have been chasing our tails for more than 11 months,” said Esteves, who is surprisingly confident that all will ultimately return to normal, if motorists are patient.

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