Traffic light controls

11 minute read Published on Jun 16, 2024 by BrokerLink Communications

Yellow traffic light against the sky on a sunny day

Understanding the rules of the road is crucial if you want to be the best driver you can be. Part of that is knowing right-of-way rules or how the demerit point system works, but another part of that is knowing how traffic lights work. Believe it or not, there are multiple types of traffic light controls used across Canada. Below, we explain how different traffic control systems work so that you can know how to navigate them safely.

What is the purpose of traffic lights?

Traffic lights, also known as traffic signals, are designed to ensure the efficient flow of traffic, keep drivers and pedestrians safe as they navigate intersections, and reduce the amount of car accidents that occur. You can find more information on common car accidents and reporting a car accident here.

The first iterations of traffic signals date back to the mid-nineteenth century when they were gas-lit signals used to direct horse carriages. However, once cars were invented and became commonplace, there was a need for an improved traffic control system.

Over the years, traffic light controls have changed drastically. In the last 30 years, due to a number of technological advancements, traffic light controls are now able to communicate with drivers better than ever before, making traffic flow more efficient and roads safer. As traffic light technology has developed, more versions of these types of systems have come about. Now, urban planners have multiple types of traffic light controls to choose from.

Types of traffic control systems

A breakdown of the different types of traffic control systems in Canada can be found as follows:

Fixed-time traffic signals

Fixed-time traffic signals are those that use a timer to change at preset intervals. Thus, fixed-time traffic signals do not change based on traffic flow or conditions. Rather, they are predetermined and run on an organized schedule.

One of the biggest perks of fixed-time traffic signals and one of the reasons that they are still so popular today is due to their cheap price and minimal maintenance requirements. That said, they are more prone to causing delays and disrupting traffic flow since they do not adapt based on real-time traffic conditions. This can result in cars sitting at intersections for long periods of time, even when there are no other cars around. For this reason, nowadays, fixed-time traffic signals are mostly found in urban areas that have constant traffic.

Actuated traffic signals

The next type of traffic light controls to know about are actuated traffic signals. These traffic systems change based on traffic conditions, as they are supposed to change on a set schedule like fixed-time traffic signals. How they adapt to traffic conditions varies depending on the types of detectors installed in the traffic lights. Some traffic lights have detectors installed inside them or nearby that can identify when cars drive over them, such as inductive loops or pressure plates. These lights may also have video or non-video sensors on the lights that monitor traffic from above and change based on the amount of traffic down below.

More expensive yet more effective at facilitating efficient traffic flow than fixed-time traffic signals, actuated traffic signals are most commonly used in suburban or rural areas where traffic is less consistent, fluctuating more throughout the day.

Pre-timed traffic signals

Pre-time traffic signals function similarly to fixed-time traffic signals, except they can be scheduled to operate in phases so that the change intervals vary throughout the day. For example, a pre-time traffic signal might change at 60-second intervals during rush hour and 120-second intervals during the other parts of the day. Meanwhile, a fixed-time traffic signal can only be set to one interval, which means that it would run on a 60 or 120-second interval all day long.

Adaptive traffic control systems (ATCS)

Adaptive traffic control systems (ATCS) are a modern type of traffic control system that uses advanced technology, such as data algorithms and sensors, to change signals based on real-time traffic conditions. ATCS is designed to respond to constant changes in traffic movements in order to keep everything moving as efficiently as possible.

ATCS can work in different ways, but similar to actuated traffic signals, they usually employ detectors, such as video cameras, loops in the pavement, and radar sensors to monitor and identify traffic conditions. Taking things one step further, adaptive traffic control systems then put the data they collect through these detectors through an algorithm to not only adjust the traffic signals in real-time but also to predict future traffic patterns.

Adaptive traffic control systems can also detect emergency vehicles

One of the most significant benefits of ATCS is that these systems are able to detect emergency vehicles and will change the traffic lights to allow an emergency vehicle to pass safely and quickly through an intersection. These systems can also adapt to other types of traffic, including pedestrian traffic, cyclists, and public transit.

SCOOT (split, cycle, and offset optimization technique)

SCOOT, which stands for split, cycle, and offset optimization techniques, is the next type of traffic control system on our list. SCOOT traffic systems are designed to optimize the timing of traffic lights at intersections according to real-time traffic patterns. SCOOT systems operate using the principles of split, cycle, and offset.

Split refers to the amount of green time for various traffic movements through an intersection. The split is adaptive and will change based on real-time traffic needs. In other words, the length of time that the traffic light is green will increase or decrease depending on the traffic. Meanwhile, a cycle is the amount of time that it takes a traffic signal to complete a full rotation between green, yellow, and red. Finally, offset monitors the difference between the main traffic signal and other traffic signals nearby. The purpose of this is to make traffic signals as coordinated as possible to allow for the continuous movement of cars.

In order for SCOOT traffic systems to work effectively, they employ a comprehensive network of detectors similar to those used in adaptive traffic control systems.

Pedestrian-activated traffic signals

As the name suggests, pedestrian-activated traffic signals are a type of traffic control device that stops vehicle traffic to allow pedestrians to safely cross the road. These traffic systems are usually found at intersections or at crossings between blocks. Pedestrian traffic signals can be activated by manually pushing a button or via sensors like infrared or microwave detectors that can identify when a pedestrian is present.

Eco-friendly traffic signals

Next are eco-friendly traffic signal systems. These devices are designed with two goals in mind: to ensure the efficient flow of traffic and to reduce energy consumption. For this reason, many eco-friendly traffic light controls use solar technology to power them. They might also feature energy-efficient lights, e.g. LED bulbs and recyclable construction materials.

Red light camera traffic lights

Traffic lights with red light cameras are another type of traffic control system worth talking about. Any type of traffic light system can be equipped with a red light camera, whether it’s an eco-friendly traffic system, a fixed-time traffic system, or an adaptive traffic control system. The purpose of red light cameras on traffic lights is not to ensure the efficient flow of traffic. Rather, it is to monitor driving behaviour, incentivize drivers to drive safely by following these safe driving tips and penalize drivers who choose not to.

More specifically, red light cameras are designed to catch drivers running a red light. If they are caught running a red light, they can receive a traffic ticket. The reason that municipalities install red light cameras is to deter people from engaging in this type of dangerous driving behaviour, which undoubtedly increases one’s risk of getting into an accident. Whether your behaviour results in a collision or not, you can still receive a careless driving ticket for running a red light, which means that you will be required to pay a fine. If an accident does occur because you ran a red light, you are likely to be found at fault, and at-fault accidents affect car insurance rates, which means that in addition to a fine, you will also have to pay more for insurance in the years to come.

Red light cameras have been around in Ontario for multiple decades. They were first introduced back in 1998 and have only become more common since then. They are triggered by sensors that are located underneath each lane of traffic. When a vehicle drives over a stop line after the red light has been activated, the camera will be triggered and a photo will be taken of your vehicle and licence plate. In Ontario, red light cameras will only be triggered when a car enters the intersection after the red light has turned, not while it is still a yellow light.

Red light camera ticket fines

If you run a red light and you are caught on camera thanks to a red light camera that is installed in a traffic light system, a ticket will be sent to the address on file for the licence plate. You will receive this ticket in the mail, which will detail how much money you have been fined. The fine for red light camera tickets in most parts of Ontario is a set amount of $325.

The vehicle’s owner is required to pay the fine, even if they weren’t the one driving at the time of the infraction. The good news is that since a red light camera is unable to detect the driver’s presence, the incident does not go on the driver’s record, and they do not receive any demerit points. Therefore, your car insurance rates will not increase after getting a red-light camera ticket. This is because, unlike at-fault accidents, which can affect your insurance for 3-10 years, red camera light tickets don’t end up on your driving record and, therefore, cannot affect your premium.

Speed camera traffic lights

Speed camera traffic lights are one last type of traffic light system to be aware of. As with red light camera traffic lights, any type of traffic control system can have a speed camera installed, including smart traffic control systems, pre-time traffic systems, actuated traffic systems, and more.

Unlike red light cameras, speed cameras are not always found at intersections or around traffic lights. For instance, they can be found on the side of a road, especially in a Community Safety Zone, such as in front of a school. The purpose of speed cameras is to deter people from engaging in the dangerous driving behaviour of speeding and to punish those who are caught driving faster than the posted speed limit.

If a speed camera at an intersection or elsewhere detects that you are driving above the speed limit, you can receive a speeding ticket. This speeding ticket will be mailed to the address associated with your licence plate number, which the speed camera will catch when it snaps a photo of you.

Speed cameras do not affect insurance in the same way that red light camera tickets do not affect insurance. Again, since the camera cannot identify the driver, this type of infraction does not go on your driving record, and you do not receive any demerit points for it. As such, your insurance premium will not be impacted if you receive a speed camera ticket. That said, you will still need to pay a fine.

It is important to note that if you receive a regular speeding ticket from a police officer, this will go on your record and can affect your car insurance rates.

Speed camera ticket fines

How much money you are fined when you are caught speeding by a speed camera varies. It also includes multiple fees in one. You will be required to pay the actual ticket fine, as well as a victim surcharge fee and a court fee.

The ticket fine will be issued according to how fast you were driving over the speed limit:

  • 1-19 km/h over the speed limit = $5.00 per kilometre
  • 20-29 km/h over the speed limit = $7.50 per kilometre
  • 30-39 km/h over the speed limit = $12.00 per kilometre
  • 50km/h or more over the speed limit = Settled in court
  • Using the above information, if the speed limit was 40 km/h and you were going 58 km/h, the ticket would cost $90.00 (18km/h multiplied by $5.00 per kilometre).

Meanwhile, the victim surcharge fee or victim fine surcharge is dependent on the amount of your speeding ticket fine. It will be calculated as follows:

  • $0-$50 speeding ticket fine = $10 victim surcharge fine
  • $51-$75 speeding ticket fine = $15 victim surcharge fine
  • $76-$100 speeding ticket fine = $20 victim surcharge fine
  • $101-$150 speeding ticket fine = $25 victim surcharge fine
  • $151-$200 speeding ticket fine = $35 victim surcharge fine
  • $201-$250 speeding ticket fine = $50 victim surcharge fine
  • $251-$300 speeding ticket fine = $60 victim surcharge fine
  • $301-$350 speeding ticket fine = $75 victim surcharge fine
  • $351-$400 speeding ticket fine = $85 victim surcharge fine
  • $401-$450 speeding ticket fine = $95 victim surcharge fine
  • $451-$500 speeding ticket fine = $110 victim surcharge fine
  • $501-$1000 speeding ticket fine = $125 victim surcharge fine
  • Over $1000 speeding ticket fine = 25% of speeding ticket fine

Finally, there is a standard court fee that applies to all speed camera tickets issued in Ontario and it costs $5.00.

Get in touch with BrokerLink

If you want to learn more about how traffic light controls work in Canada or how certain types of traffic systems influence traffic flow, reach out to BrokerLink today. We can explain how and why different types of traffic signals are used across the country, as well as how various types of infractions, such as red light tickets, can influence your car insurance rates.

In addition, a BrokerLink insurance advisor can help you find a car insurance policy, file an insurance claim, and explain why you might have to report a car accident in Ontario. We also offer free car insurance quotes to all customers. These quotes are completely free of charge and come with no strings attached.

To request a free quote today, call BrokerLink, visit one of our locations in person, or use the online quote tool on our website. From there, answer a few questions about yourself and your vehicle, and one of our licensed brokers will get back to you with a reliable and accurate quote.

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FAQs on traffic lights

How do traffic lights work?

Traffic lights primarily work in two main ways: they either operate on set timers, changing intervals at predetermined rates, or they operate using detectors, which allows them to adapt the change intervals based on real-time traffic movements. Traditional traffic lights, or those that run on a set schedule, are the cheapest to operate and are most common in urban areas where there is lots of traffic no matter the time of day. Meanwhile, adaptive traffic lights that respond to real-time traffic conditions are more common in suburban and rural areas where the traffic fluctuates depending on the time of day.

How do traffic lights know when a car is there?

Advanced traffic light systems can detect when a car is waiting at a light. Depending on other traffic patterns and conditions, the traffic light might adjust its change interval based on the vehicle’s presence. The way that a traffic light knows when a car is there is via detectors. One of the most popular types of detectors is an inductive loop, which is a sensor embedded in the road’s surface. Other detectors that an advanced traffic light system might use to detect a vehicle’ presence include radar, video cameras, and pressure plates.

Are modern traffic lights controlled by computers?

Some traffic lights are centrally monitored by computers to monitor changing traffic conditions and adapt to them in real-time. However, nowadays, technology is so advanced that traffic light systems contain timers and sensors to manage and adjust traffic movements. The most advanced versions even use complex algorithms to analyze traffic data that they’ve gathered.

If you have any questions, contact one of our local branches.