The device, called an Opticon, is similar to what firefighters use to change lights when they respond to emergencies. It emits an infrared pulse that receivers on the traffic lights pick up.(Buy your own "traffic control preemptive device" here for just $299.99.) Link (Thanks, Kelly!)
Niccum was cited after city traffic engineers who noticed repeated traffic light disruptions at certain intersections spotted a white Ford pickup passing by whenever the patterns were disrupted.
Reader comment: Trevor says: "I work at a city in Southern California and I asked our Traffic Engineers about 'personal use' of the infrared preemptive devices. Not only did they say you would get in trouble (duh!), but they also said it wouldn't work because for most cities, when you use the preemptive device it changes all the lights to RED. Which makes more sense because it's safer for the emergency vehicle, they already have the right-of-way and with all the lights switched to red they don't have to worry about anybody turning in front of them..."
Reader comment: Jon says:
Just thought I'd contribute a little factual information. I'm a traffic engineer that enjoys designing traffic signals for a living. The use of signal "preemption" equipment is VERY common in Northwest states, (like Oregon where I live) and is installed at 80% or more of existing signalized intersections. The right to preempt signals is normally assigned to fire/paramedic vehicles, though some cities/counties also allow ambulances and/or police this capability. In every case I'm familiar with, the preempting vehicle receives a GREEN light and all other movements are shown a RED light. Why, because the green light is needed to move blocking vehicles out of the way!
The most common technology uses an infrared light, mounted to a vehicle, that pulses at a fast rate (15,000 Hz +/-). If the equipment is less than 10 years old it likely has the ability to ID the vehicle by reading a digital signature in the infrared beam. It is virtually impossible for a unauthorized person to take advantage of this system. Further, most modern signal systems are able to log preemption activity, making it easy to find an offender.
One last thing, it is a federal offense to tamper with traffic signal preemption. SAFETEA-LU made illegal use of a 'traffic signal preemption transmitter' (MIRTS et al). The original bill, HR 1122 introduced in the 109th Congress in March 2005 was incorporated into SAFETEA-LU shortly thereafter and passed with the rest as Public Law No: 109-059 on 8/10/2005.
Reader comment: Jeremy says: "In response to your article about the guy being fined for using a traffic preemption device I thought I'd point out a DIY solution. iHacked.com has instructions that will supposidly allow you to build your own. I haven't tried it, but from reading the instructions it looks like anyone who is comfortable with a soldering iron should be able to put one of these together." Link
Mark Frauenfelder is the founder of Boing Boing and the editor-in-chief of MAKE and Cool Tools. Twitter: @frauenfelder. His new book is Maker Dad: Lunch Box Guitars, Antigravity Jars, and 22 Other Incredibly Cool Father-Daughter DIY Projects