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Computer Failure Causes Gridlock In MD County

Soulskill posted about 5 years ago | from the single-point-of-roadrage dept.

Transportation 483

Uncle Rummy writes "A central traffic control computer in Montgomery County, Maryland failed early Wednesday morning, leading to widespread gridlock across the entire county. The computer, which dates to the 1970s, is the single point of unified control for all traffic signals in the county, which comprises a number of major Washington DC-area suburban communities. When the system failed, it caused all signals to default to stand-alone operation, rather than the highly-tuned synchronization that usually serves to facilitate traffic flow during rush hours. The resulting chaos is a yet another stark reminder of how much modern civilization relies on behind-the-scenes automation to deliver and control basic services and infrastructure. The system remains down Thursday, with no ETA in sight."

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Report from the field: "Drivers very confused" (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 years ago | (#29996974)

All the lights have turned blue. And near equal proportions of drivers are interpreting blue lights as go and stop. Very messy.

Re:Report from the field: "Drivers very confused" (1)

JWSmythe (446288) | about 5 years ago | (#29997016)

  I've seen some places in the US, where the green light is blue. I still haven't figured that one out, but I tend to go for the blue light, and stop for the pink one.

Re:Report from the field: "Drivers very confused" (3, Informative)

halivar (535827) | about 5 years ago | (#29997142)

Green lights are often blue to accommodate reg/green color blindness.

Re:Report from the field: "Drivers very confused" (1)

thickdiick (1663057) | about 5 years ago | (#29997470)

I have traveled extensively inside the USA and have never seen one such occurence. Tell me, does it appear blue to color blind people only? I was under the impression that RED YELLOW & GREEN colors were always in the same place to accomodate color-blind people, who can still see the light shine from each spot.

Re:Report from the field: "Drivers very confused" (1)

windex82 (696915) | about 5 years ago | (#29997614)

Except there not even in the same place depending on the area...

Some are red on top green on bottom and I've also seen red on the left and green on the right, i've also seen left turn green on the left, red, yellow, green, right turn green on the right.

Some places have the lights directly overhead, some place them off to the side of the road, some are in the middle of the intersection suspended by crossed wires...

I have traveled extensively inside the USA and have never seen one such occurence.
I haven't traveled very extensively at all and have seen all of the above... perhaps you're not paying very close attention? Back to the main point though, I wouldn't exactly call them blue (the ones I've seen anyway) they are just not the same primary green your accustomed too and are more of a teal color.

Re:Report from the field: "Drivers very confused" (1)

realityimpaired (1668397) | about 5 years ago | (#29997542)

Interesting the different solutions that they come up with in different jurisdictions for colour blindness... In Quebec, for example, they use different shapes for the different signals. A red square is stop, an amber diamond for stop ahead, and a green circle for the green light... often traffic signals will have two lamps for the red, as well, one on either side of the signal (which is horizontal).

But using blue instead of green for colour blindness is a really good idea, too. interesting. :)

Re:Report from the field: "Drivers very confused" (1)

colfer (619105) | about 5 years ago | (#29997150)

The added blue is for people with red-green colorblindness. Maybe it's a matter of degree. Or 90 degrees. Were the lights horizontal instead of vertical, by chance?

Off-topic, I lived in a city in the 1980s where some traffic lights were still on the side of the street instead of overhead. So many out of towners were running reds and wrecking the city had to put in the overheads.

Re:Report from the field: "Drivers very confused" (1)

David_W (35680) | about 5 years ago | (#29997490)

Off-topic, I lived in a city in the 1980s where some traffic lights were still on the side of the street instead of overhead. So many out of towners were running reds and wrecking the city had to put in the overheads.

DC still has those, at least in the more "historic" areas. Drives me nuts every time I go there as I'm always afraid I'm going to miss one.

Re:Report from the field: "Drivers very confused" (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 years ago | (#29997216)

These
http://www.blueplaneteyewear.com/images/ff_8047_3D.jpg

are not the kind of sunglasses you should wear when driving.

Re:Report from the field: "Drivers very confused" (1)

beadfulthings (975812) | about 5 years ago | (#29997252)

Well, you're semi-correct. The pink light is actually yellow or amber. We call it pink because pink is almost red.

Re:Report from the field: "Drivers very confused" (5, Funny)

scorp1us (235526) | about 5 years ago | (#29997388)

The blue is from appraching the light too fast. You're aproximately going 20% the speed of light. SLOW DOWN.

Where's a traffic cop when you need one? (1)

pickled doughboy (700747) | about 5 years ago | (#29996982)

Maybe all the meter maids could direct traffic for a while?

Re:Where's a traffic cop when you need one? (5, Funny)

Ritchie70 (860516) | about 5 years ago | (#29997106)

That wouldn't make it any better.

I haven't read the article, but if the summary correctly reflects the situation, the traffic lights are all working - they're just working independently, so rather than being in sync so the main flow of traffic never has to stop (or stops less) they're all just doing their own thing.

Re:Where's a traffic cop when you need one? (4, Insightful)

natehoy (1608657) | about 5 years ago | (#29997156)

Wouldn't matter. The traffic lights were working fine, the problem was there was no central system that could take a larger view of traffic and sense that turning a light green a block away could prevent a gridlock issue at a specific intersection. Intelligent traffic control takes traffic that is approaching a heavily congested area and intentionally slows it down, while freeing up cars to LEAVE congested areas more quickly. They help prevent gridlock by making sure that once a specific light turns green you can actually drive through the intersection, and turns the light red BEFORE cars get caught in the middle of an intersection.

You see this kind of design a lot in well-designed roads in smaller towns. Busy towns will tend to have lots of stop signs coming in to town, but try to reduce stop signs when leaving town. The idea is to keep inbound traffic from filling the town faster than departing cars can leave by making sure cars that are leaving can do so as quickly as possible, while cars wanting to come in will be intentionally slowed down.

A meter maid has no more information about traffic flow at adjacent intersections than an autonomous single light would.

I've seen this movie as well... (4, Funny)

Monkeedude1212 (1560403) | about 5 years ago | (#29997000)

I smell foul play...

Quick, someone get Bruce Willis!

Re:I've seen this movie as well... (1)

Deag (250823) | about 5 years ago | (#29997206)

The washington metro's computers did crash yesterday also. So call him quick!

Re:I've seen this movie as well... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 years ago | (#29997256)

Well, the top man in the country's Professor Peach - I've seen him on television.

Re:I've seen this movie as well... (2, Informative)

EdZ (755139) | about 5 years ago | (#29997364)

Willis? I think you have the wrong movie [wikipedia.org] .

How obscure? (1)

MobileTatsu-NJG (946591) | about 5 years ago | (#29997002)

Wooo Fire Sale!!

Waiting for it... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 years ago | (#29997010)

Waiting for the Hackers movie references in 3...2...1...

Re:Waiting for it... (1)

hardburn (141468) | about 5 years ago | (#29997238)

Hackers, nay. I was waiting for someone to reference Michael Caine being seen running flat out through side streets in a Mini.

remind of a Cult of The Dead Cow tfile (3, Interesting)

trybywrench (584843) | about 5 years ago | (#29997018)

back in the day i read a "tfile" by Sunspot IIRC that explained how to break into those boxes attached the stop lights at intersections and make every light stay green all the time. Not sure if it was legit or not but it sounded a little far fetched.

As for the single computer, i bet a coke no one knows the root password, the system administrator is long gone and the programmers are very long gone. I bet the staff tried to power cycle it thinking it was just like a PC and now they've made the problem 3x worse.

All-green probably an urban legend (4, Insightful)

davidwr (791652) | about 5 years ago | (#29997078)

Most of those boxes have a "conflicting green" detector circuit that automatically puts the signal in "safe mode" when it detects two conflicting green lights.

On simpler systems, "safe mode" is all-way flashing red lights.

I guess if you knew what wires to mess with you could disable this safety feature.

Physical access is root access.

Re:All-green probably an urban legend (1)

sexconker (1179573) | about 5 years ago | (#29997422)

Physical access is root access.

Physical access is infinitely more powerful than root access.

Root access is shit.

Re:All-green probably an urban legend (3, Funny)

Qzukk (229616) | about 5 years ago | (#29997440)

After hurricane Ike blew through Houston, I ended up parking at a light that was stuck, showing green for traffic in one direction only for at least 15 minutes.

Every time someone was brave enough to try to run the red light, someone else would drive through the green light and spook everyone. Eventually I turned right, U-turned, and turned right again.

Re:All-green probably an urban legend (1)

jimicus (737525) | about 5 years ago | (#29997574)

Physical access is root access.

Technically true, but it doesn't do you a whole lot of good if you don't have anyone on staff who has the remotest idea what to do once they have physical access.

I do! (3, Funny)

NoYob (1630681) | about 5 years ago | (#29997204)

...i bet a coke no one knows the root passwod,...r

it's "password"!

This is government, you know.

Re:remind of a Cult of The Dead Cow tfile (1)

EvilBudMan (588716) | about 5 years ago | (#29997478)

Maybe they could turn it off and back on and it would work?

Re:remind of a Cult of The Dead Cow tfile (1)

BitZtream (692029) | about 5 years ago | (#29997508)

You assume it has a password, and the concept of user accounts for that matter.

If its sitting in some secure control room somewhere it may not require one. Password protection is far less important when you aren't on a network that unauthorized people have access to.

Of course, just because its been sitting there since the 70s doesn't mean it hasn't been modified, the area's traffic is in constant flux and it would need constant adjustment to remain efficient. Its most certainly been modified hundreds of times, I'm sure several times this year alone.

1970's computer (1)

Capt.DrumkenBum (1173011) | about 5 years ago | (#29997022)

I have an old Pentium 75. They are welcome to it, it it will help. :) Of course with the diffrence in processing power between a Pentium and a 1970's era computer, you could probably run the entire countries traffic lights with a P75.

Re:1970's computer (0, Flamebait)

NoYob (1630681) | about 5 years ago | (#29997134)

The is Washinton DC. It is governed by Congress. They won't take your freebie.

What they'll do is have the committee in charge of that farm out a "study" that will spend months figuring out what they need. Then said committee will hire the buddy of the Congressman that is owed the most favors. Said buddy will then have to do a cost plus design, implementation and install of system. Here' s the cost break down with Washington DC/Hollywood accounting standards:

Driving to computer store: $250,000
Picking out computer: $100,000
Cost of computer: $350
driving computer to Dot office: $250,000
Installation: $164,032.32
Writing and printing invoice: $56,473.45
--------------
Total: $5,0000,0000*

*I said Washinton DC/Hollywood accounting standards. Geeze!

Re:1970's computer (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 years ago | (#29997378)

Here' s the cost break down with Washington DC/Hollywood accounting standards:

Driving to computer store: $250,000
Picking out computer: $100,000
Cost of computer: $350
driving computer to Dot office: $250,000
Installation: $164,032.32
Writing and printing invoice: $56,473.45
--------------
Total: $5,0000,0000*

*I said Washinton DC/Hollywood accounting standards. Geeze!

$5,0000,0000? "No Child Left Behind" strikes again!

Re:1970's computer (2, Insightful)

hardburn (141468) | about 5 years ago | (#29997222)

Old systems stick around because they work. City-wide traffic systems are very complicated affairs. Getting rid of a 40 year old system also means trashing 40 years of hard lessons.

Re:1970's computer (1)

yurtinus (1590157) | about 5 years ago | (#29997550)

Doesn't necessarily mean trashing all the lessons learned when building the new system. However you bring up a great point-- it works. How many failures have there been since 1970? If it's just now making news for a failure, then reliability doesn't seem to be an issue.

I live there (1)

Mekkah (1651935) | about 5 years ago | (#29997044)

I live around this area and I hadn't noticed anything. I haven't heard anyone complain either..

I guess traffic was a little heavier yesterday. Traffic sucks all the time, if it rains it is the apocalypse.

Hmm.. Strange.

Re:I live there (5, Informative)

dsieburgh (1119015) | about 5 years ago | (#29997152)

I live here too and it was mayhem last night. It took me 2.5 hours to get home from work which usually takes 25 minutes. (6 miles) Many of my coworkers and friends have also reported major headaches... We were sitting at traffic lights with nowhere to go for sometimes up to 5 cycles of the lights. What I heard is that there is a different timing for rush hours that lets more traffic flow south in the morning and north in the evenings. The worst areas according to news reports are Rockville Pike, which I experienced last night, Connecticut Ave, Georgia Ave and Rt 29. The official word is that some board blew in the main computer and they are unable to find "parts" to replace it. I am not certain about the details. The county website is reporting that all traffic lights are going to have to be manually updated one-by-one. There are 800 intersections.

Re:I live there (3, Informative)

squirrelist (412181) | about 5 years ago | (#29997260)

I live in downtown Silver Spring. I commute from Columbia. It's usually a 30 minute drive, but last night took me an hour and a half. The worst part was when I crossed Georgia Ave a block from my home, right by the DC border. That last block took me 20 minutes.

I was trying to figure out what was up with the traffic. I didn't see any accidents or emergency vehicles, and the traffic reports I heard just said that traffic on Georgia was slow. Didn't hear anything about the control system until today.

Re:I live there (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 years ago | (#29997486)

I live in central PG county. My commute through the county was clear and uneventful, just like it is during the other 364 days of the year.

Moving to PG was the best decision that I ever made. Try it -- you'll marvel at how much free time you have when you're not spending hours in gridlock.

Re:I live there (1)

rotorbudd (1242864) | about 5 years ago | (#29997510)

sounds like the northern end of ATL everyday.

Re:I live there (1)

EvilBudMan (588716) | about 5 years ago | (#29997536)

I know how you can fix this. Move to the gun loving, gun running state of Virginia. It's not too far away. Yeah, and we never have problems with our ultra new traffic lights. No. No way hehehe. (sarcasm)

Re:I live there (1)

Deag (250823) | about 5 years ago | (#29997184)

I noticed it yesterday, I was cursing whoever changed the timing on one of the lights as it was causing a considerable backup. Then I read this.

I wouldn't call it gridlock though either. Just slightly worse than usual

It depends on your route also, if you are crossing the main routes rather than going on them it might even make your journey quicker.

Re:I live there (1)

JustinOpinion (1246824) | about 5 years ago | (#29997212)

I also live in the affected area. I personally wasn't affected much since I bike to work. Actually I did notice the long lines of cars at all the lights. As a cyclist it was actually nice since the gridlock of cars slowly crawling onto the highway on-ramp is easier to navigate than the usual situation where cars don't stop for pedestrians or cyclists at the cross-walk.

In any case, my coworkers sure noticed. Some of them said that their commute yesterday went from 30 minutes to 3 hours. Similarly getting into work this morning took people longer than usual.

So it's certainly having an impact. But, life goes on.

When the system fails, shut the lights off. (1)

characterZer0 (138196) | about 5 years ago | (#29997102)

No lights is better than badly times lights.

Re:When the system fails, shut the lights off. (3, Insightful)

Golddess (1361003) | about 5 years ago | (#29997268)

You're joking, right?

I mean, sure, the law states that when an intersection has traffic lights, and the lights are out, it's an all-way stop. But in practice, I rarely see other drivers actually give a fuck that they are supposed to stop.

Re:When the system fails, shut the lights off. (2, Insightful)

jeffmeden (135043) | about 5 years ago | (#29997402)

I have seen accidents at lightly trafficked intersections when the light was completely out... I don't want to imagine the apocalypse of a couple hundred all going out in a well populated area; it would turn into Mad Max in a matter of hours.

Re:When the system fails, shut the lights off. (1)

colfer (619105) | about 5 years ago | (#29997406)

That's D.C. for you. As I recall it, California drivers are actually pretty good at that when the lights go out. The state has a lot of 4-way stop signs.

Re:When the system fails, shut the lights off. (1)

characterZer0 (138196) | about 5 years ago | (#29997410)

In my experience, when the lights are out, a bunch of people will go through the intersection and then somebody will stop, at which point a bunch of people will go from the perpendicular direction. It works out quite well.

There is one light that I pass through on my commute that goes out for an afternoon a few times a year. On those days, traffic improves noticeably as people are better able to judge which direction is more backed up at that particular moment than a computer is.

The computers only have a few sensors, and do not know about accidents, effects of nearby construction, or temporary delays due to an old lady crossing the street at half a mile an hour. People can see these things and react. If even one of four is courteous enough to stop when appropriate, traffic flows nicely.

Re:When the system fails, shut the lights off. (2, Insightful)

greed (112493) | about 5 years ago | (#29997338)

When a traffic signal in Toronto loses contact with the computer, it goes to flashing 4-way red, to remind people it's an all-way-stop now. They only go to "no signal" if there's a power failure. (In which case, they're still all-way-stop but despite the radio saying so every time there's a power failure, 70% of drivers just blow through a dark traffic light at speed.)

I think all-way-stop on multilane roads are MUCH MUCH MUCH MUCH worse than untimed lights. People have no idea how to deal with multilane roads that have a stop sign; almost no-one will let a left turn through, all sorts of problems like that.

Re:When the system fails, shut the lights off. (1)

idontgno (624372) | about 5 years ago | (#29997444)

True. Since turning off traffic lights also suspends the Pauli Exclusion Principle, vehicles can zip right through each other in the intersection without interacting all. Brilliant!

And this just proves that traffic signals are just a conspiracy to get red-light-runner ticket money into corrupt local government budget coffers.

Have a taste of living in Los Angeles! (4, Funny)

non0score (890022) | about 5 years ago | (#29997108)

So the default behavior is basically traffic lights in Los Angeles on a normal day? I feel soooo sorry for them. ;)

It could've been worse (1)

davidwr (791652) | about 5 years ago | (#29997114)

If there had been a widespread power outage, most of the lights would have been dark.

Um, what's the protocol when the traffic light is all-ways flashing black/black? *groan*

Re:It could've been worse (1)

Golddess (1361003) | about 5 years ago | (#29997320)

It's supposed to be like an all-way stop.

Supposed to be.

unfortunately... (1)

davidwr (791652) | about 5 years ago | (#29997396)

The last time I remember being at a light that was out, it was night and the nearby street-lamps were also out.

Unless you knew there was a cross street there, you were likely to plow right though it.

From the 1980s (5, Informative)

Sponge Bath (413667) | about 5 years ago | (#29997122)

According to this [wtopnews.com] it was a Data General main frame from the 1980s and not from the 1970s. Anyone know what model?

Re:From the 1980s (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 years ago | (#29997154)

Mini, not mainframe. I knew it was going to be a DG, but I can't remember what model they used to use for this.

Re:From the 1980s (1)

afidel (530433) | about 5 years ago | (#29997286)

Hmm, I know of a company that started out as a specialist in aftermarket support for DG boxes, wonder how hard they have looked for replacement parts.

Re:From the 1980s (1)

idontgno (624372) | about 5 years ago | (#29997350)

Hmmm... probably an Eclipse MV machine. I worked with a ten-year-old MV/10000 back in the day (early 90s). That makes it the right timeline.

Re:From the 1980s (1)

RoverDaddy (869116) | about 5 years ago | (#29997474)

Interesting. I'm old enough to remember that during the late 70's or so, Honeywell used to advertise a system like this during "The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau". When the same show gets the same ads practically every week (there was also a memorable ad for Burlington textiles), they stick in your brain. I wonder if Honeywell supplied this system, using the DG equipment.

Re:From the 1980s (1)

SnarfQuest (469614) | about 5 years ago | (#29997568)

I'll bet the delay in fixing it is searching ebay for replacement parts. Even if DG still exists, I doubt that they are still supplying replacement parts for nova's, which would be my next guess as to what they have.

MontCo $$ (4, Interesting)

headhot (137860) | about 5 years ago | (#29997128)

For those who aren't familiar with Montgomery County, MD. It is one of, if not the richest counties in the nation. I find it amazing that even in a county like this, the public infrastructure is crumbling.

They had a massive water main break earlier this year that made the national news.

Re:MontCo $$ (2, Informative)

JWSmythe (446288) | about 5 years ago | (#29997234)

    No one fixes infrastructure until it's broken. That's pretty standard everywhere.

    Los Angeles has had an increase in water main breaks also. They fix the spot as they break. If I remember their numbers, they expect about 400 to 700 main breaks per year.

    Who cares about the old mini/mainframe running the traffic lights. If it's run since the 70's or 80's, it'll run forever. I always love that intelligence. I like to laugh about it more when it fails too. :)

Re:MontCo $$ (2, Insightful)

nomadic (141991) | about 5 years ago | (#29997294)

No one fixes infrastructure until it's broken. That's pretty standard everywhere.

Well, not since the tax-cut/reduce-government fanatics came into power.

Re:MontCo $$ (1, Funny)

sexconker (1179573) | about 5 years ago | (#29997496)

Well, not since the tax-cut/reduce-government fanatics came into power.

I would like to believe you are from the future - a future full of tax cuts and reduced government.

However, I know you are just an idiot.

Re:MontCo $$ (1)

Wonko the Sane (25252) | about 5 years ago | (#29997288)

I find it amazing that even in a county like this, the public infrastructure is crumbling.

Why do you find it amazing? Even in a rich county there's not much money left over for good infrastructure after all the mandatory spending on bribe and kickback entitlements.

Not only that... (1)

yakatz (1176317) | about 5 years ago | (#29997136)

on the same day, the PDU for the D.C. Metro (subway and bus) communication system failed, leaving no communication for the bus system (including fair collection machines), leading to more travel trouble.
Got all those conspiracy theorist wondering if they are related.

Re:Not only that... (2, Informative)

yakatz (1176317) | about 5 years ago | (#29997158)

Here's a link: http://www.wmata.com/about_metro/news/PressReleaseDetail.cfm?ReleaseID=4133 [wmata.com]
---
(Sorely needed feature: edit a post)

Re:Not only that... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 years ago | (#29997370)

> (Sorely needed feature: edit a post)

Slashdot used to have that - you could edit your signature after posting, and your new sig showed up as part of your old post. It was removed because trolls were abusing it.

Troll: *empty post, racist comment in sig*
Indignant n00b: *OMG! I totally disagree!*
Troll: *changes sig to contain anti-racist comment*

The n00b's post then looked like he was disagreeing with the anti-racist comment. Hilarity ensued.

In other news: (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 years ago | (#29997138)

A wood rowboat from the '60s develops a leak and sinks to the bottom of lake Woebegone.

Job opening in MD... (2, Funny)

iamhigh (1252742) | about 5 years ago | (#29997146)

But you'll never make it to the interview on time, as traffic moves at the speed of my old TRS80... wait a minute...

This is reassuring... (1)

wirelessbuzzers (552513) | about 5 years ago | (#29997162)

The upside in this is that the lights still work when the controller is down. They don't go flashing red, stay red, turn off or something worse.

Re:This is reassuring... (1)

Hybrid-brain (1478551) | about 5 years ago | (#29997192)

this is why we still need traffic directors.

Re:This is reassuring... (1)

natehoy (1608657) | about 5 years ago | (#29997194)

Right. A failure of this system is not an issue of safety, just of horrible, horrible inconvenience.

Re:This is reassuring... (2, Interesting)

jimbobborg (128330) | about 5 years ago | (#29997424)

Right. A failure of this system is not an issue of safety, just of horrible, horrible inconvenience.

You obviously don't live in this area. When anything like this happens, road rage incidents skyrocket. Maryland has some of the worst drivers I've ever seen. And Maryland doesn't require that drivers use turn signals. I hate driving through there, especially on the highways. The posted speed limit is 55, but I get about 20% of the drivers blowing by me at over 80. Montgomery and Prince George's County are the worst of the bunch.

Re:This is reassuring... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 years ago | (#29997604)

And Maryland doesn't require that drivers use turn signals.

What are you talking about!!

That wasn't the case as of last time I took driver's ed. (four years ago).

Re:This is reassuring... (5, Interesting)

JWSmythe (446288) | about 5 years ago | (#29997318)

    IANATE (I Am Not A Traffic Engineer), but I've had the opportunity to talk to some over the years. From what I recall of those conversations, most, if not all, traffic signals are failsafe. They cannot have colliding greens, and they won't generally just turn off. Even in the event of a power failure, they're suppose to stay up on batteries for a while.

    I have seen their failsafe behavior fail though. I was once driving on a dark foggy night. Visibility was very very poor. I was staying in my lane, but I couldn't see much else. I had a long drive in a rural area, and I was coming into an urban area. I expected to see street lights and traffic lights, but there were none. As I was driving, another car shot across the road just ahead of me, missing me by just a few feet. He didn't see the traffic light that wasn't working either. I called the police, so they could station an officer there. Their response was "Are you crazy? No one can see at that intersection. He'll get hit." Hmmm, good logic. At least no one got killed there that night.

Re:This is reassuring... (2, Interesting)

Shadyman (939863) | about 5 years ago | (#29997358)

Indeed. However, you can take heart in the fact that each intersection has its lights controlled by a computer (an embedded microcontroller or microprocessor), which is usually installed in a grey box at one of the corners. This controls the intersection's lights, including crosswalks, and takes input from inductive sensors in most lanes. If any part of this computer fails or does not pass sanity checks, the lights flash red, requiring a team to visit the intersection's box to diagnose and fix the problem.

In this case, the article says it's just a matter of the intersections not knowing what time it is, saying "...[w]hen they were supposed to switch to morning rush mode, from 7 to 7:30, they kept rocking along at a rhythm better suited to Sunday morning."

IIRC, older systems used a dial-up modem to report problems to head office, or receive new instructions from it, whereas newer systems use DSL to communicate. The article says, "...[t]hey know where the problem is, but they just don't know what it is... The server seems to be sending the signal, but the conduit is not transferring the information to the signal lights."

I blame Dan Snyder (2, Funny)

Parlett316 (112473) | about 5 years ago | (#29997178)

Fire him.

70s computer (5, Insightful)

icebike (68054) | about 5 years ago | (#29997202)

Damn! 70s? Talk about Return on Investment.

The WashPost, in another article touts Fragile Technology.
I reach for my 70's era calculator and estimate the operational life of 34 years for this system. Some Fragility. Who or what at the Post has been there that long.

Wonder if its some ancient PDP version or an small IBM mainframe. The article is scarce on details. Parts for either are getting hard to find except in the scrap market.

Still you have to wonder why it wasn't ported to some other platform if nothing else as an exercise in disaster preparedness. Any commodity computer could do the job.

There is a lot of stuff like this still in service. I saw a PDP 8 monitoring turbines in a hydro Power station, and asked about where they get that fixed. The reply was it never broke down, but they had stockpiled 6 replacements, tested each yearly, just because they realized how old it was. Nobody knows exactly what it does anymore.

normal for Fairfax County (1)

mdmarkus (522132) | about 5 years ago | (#29997210)

Just across the river in Fairfax County, Virginia, this is the normal behavior for lights. In fact, i suspect some of them are timed so as you get released from one light, the next one (200m away) turns red.

Re:normal for Fairfax County (1)

jimbobborg (128330) | about 5 years ago | (#29997354)

Fairfax County is in cahoots with the oil companies to make us burn more gas waiting for the lights to turn green. They also work for brake pad manufacturers, who make a fortune from people who have to slam on the brakes from 55 mph while driving on the Fairfax County Parkway. I hate driving through there at any time, but it's worse during rush hour since every moron is out driving and won't maintain the speed limit.

Re:normal for Fairfax County (1)

dsieburgh (1119015) | about 5 years ago | (#29997368)

Ha. Very true. I used to live in Arlington... Someone posted on washingtonpost.com yesterday about this situation by say: "So Montgomery County today, is just like Northern Virginia everyday..."

Re:normal for Fairfax County (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 years ago | (#29997580)

All the lights in my hometown are like that too. It takes 20 minutes to go 2 miles across town, since every damn intersection has a light, and they're all timed exactly wrong.

Reliable? (1)

Caviller (1420685) | about 5 years ago | (#29997220)

Quote "The county is in the second year of a six-year program that will bring in more modern and reliable equipment."

Reliable?!?!?! If this thing was built back in the 70s and just now has crashed badly....how much more reliable could you be? I can't get a modern motherboard to last more then 5-7 years before something goes wrong with it....if i'm lucky.

Re:Reliable? (1)

jbeaupre (752124) | about 5 years ago | (#29997502)

You misunderstand. Switching to equipment that reliably dies every 5-7 years will bring in yet more modern equipment each time. Rinse and repeat. Thus the program successfully brings in more modern and reliable equipment.

ObQuote (1)

spongman (182339) | about 5 years ago | (#29997236)

"You're only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!"

Wait... Modern? Basic? (1)

mr_josh (1001605) | about 5 years ago | (#29997242)

Let's not go crazy here, I mean, there's not a whole lot that's relatively modern about this if the thing was developed in the friggin' '70s and operates without an efficient backup system. If anything, it's an example of how much society would _BENEFIT_ from a modern system.

Sane default (1)

colfer (619105) | about 5 years ago | (#29997248)

That's a sane default at least. Never overestimate a large software system...

Here's a piece about traffic lights optimized for furry bicyclists... http://hembrow.blogspot.com/2008/09/default-to-green.html [blogspot.com] ... such as "having a simultaneous green phase for bikes to go in all directions at once."

Where? (2, Funny)

Itninja (937614) | about 5 years ago | (#29997250)

From TFA: "They know where the problem is, but they just don't know what it is," she said. "The server seems to be sending the signal, but the conduit is not transferring the information to the signal lights."

I can tell you where it is. Right there on layer 4. Does that help? Then try layer 8.

Are you sure... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 years ago | (#29997280)

..that Charlie Croker wasn't involved?

Blame it on Vista? (3, Funny)

cashman73 (855518) | about 5 years ago | (#29997334)

I was going to say we should blame this on Windows Vista, until I saw the part about the computer system dating back to the 1970s, so that wouldn't work. Still, there's got to be some way we can put the fault on Micro$oft? Maybe the computer was in need of some necessary maintenance, and the technician whose responsibility that was was too tied up in a game of Minesweeper or Solitaire, or something?

Re:Blame it on Vista? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 years ago | (#29997442)

I was going to say we should blame this on Windows Vista, until I saw the part about the computer system dating back to the 1970s, so that wouldn't work. Still, there's got to be some way we can put the fault on Micro$oft? Maybe the computer was in need of some necessary maintenance, and the technician whose responsibility that was was too tied up in a game of Minesweeper or Solitaire, or something?

CP/M was from the 70s

CP/M->DOS->Windows->WindowNT

Shouldn't be too much of a problem... (1)

OpenGLFan (56206) | about 5 years ago | (#29997348)

...you can always call work and say you'll be late. Unless you've got T-Mobile.

CENTRALIZATION (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 years ago | (#29997374)

never under estimate the ability of some fucking pro central control wanker to fuck you over along with millions of others. this stands as an omen of doom for anything too centralized like OBAMANUSIM or OBAMACARE

Re:CENTRALIZATION (1)

gregraven (574513) | about 5 years ago | (#29997528)

Amen. Just as bad as the initial centralization is that each failure of centralization results in more calls for increased centralization! D'oh!

Common where are all the skynet quips ? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 years ago | (#29997398)

Its started .. EBE Entity self aware 18:23 hours

Just Skynet Running Some Tests (3, Funny)

HangingChad (677530) | about 5 years ago | (#29997434)

The resulting chaos is a yet another stark reminder of how much modern civilization relies on behind-the-scenes automation to deliver and control basic services and infrastructure.

Just Skynet trying to figure out how to bunch up targets when it seizes control of our Predator and Reaper UAV's.

dare i say it? (1)

stoned_hamster (1531291) | about 5 years ago | (#29997454)

"firesale, stage one" now please excuse me while i talk to the nice FBI guys arriving at my door in the next 5 minutes.....

It can't be that bad.. (1)

Mr_Miagi (1648543) | about 5 years ago | (#29997468)

The traffic here in NYC hasn't suffered at all!

Roundabouts (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 5 years ago | (#29997498)

Don't you have roundabouts in the US ?
This is so much more efficient than traffic lights... and no computers are involved.

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