Some call them 'outdated', some say their poorly programmed, but the traffic lights at many busy interjections on Muscat's roads blink for a reason – to slow you down to safety. But motorists in Muscat say they surely deserve a better deal!
Wriggling traffic, and cars dead stuck at intersections is a common spectacle at the traffic signals across the city. Especially during the peak morning/evening hours, it becomes a nightmare for commuters cutting through the logjams to reach their destinations.
The situation is worst in the busy hubs at Ruwi, Al Khuwair, Bausher, and Ghala, all of which have heavy traffic all through the day. It is a common sight to witness vehicles lined up at these interjections, each having to wait for at least 3-4 signal cycles before clearing the junction. And, to add to the distress of motorists, several impatient motorists cut lanes at the last second, to take shortcuts for themselves, and end up jeopardising the movement of scores of vehicles in lanes all around them.
Another big problem is very short duration of the green signal at many of the crossings - some very busy, including the Ruwi and Bausher intersections, going green for as low as 5 seconds. The extremely low timings have lead to incidents of signal jumping and crashes, as drivers make haste to avoid being stuck for another whole signal cycle.
The recent school bus accident at the Ruwi Intersection, near Sheraton Hotel, was a result of the low signal timing. In fact, motorists travelling from the Sheraton signal towards Ruwi roundabout have to endure five signal junctions, each just a few metres away from the other. And during peak hours, traffic get trapped in the so called "yellow boxes" at signal junction since the vehicles ahead do not get adequate clearance once they exit a signal.
Acknowledging the problem, Khalid Amri, from the IT Divison, ROP said, "There are junctions across the city where the signals are timed to go green for strikingly low durations, which is aggravating the congestion problem. The ROP has taken note of the issue, and it would soon be resolved," he said adding the municipality had already been notified and instructed by ROP to increase and adjust the signal timings at some junctions.
Many commuters feel numeric countdowns (as prevalent in several cities around the world) should be installed at the traffic signals, to help drivers get ready and launch better at the intersections. The idea, however, was tested and rejected by the ROP as it found the countdown not feasible and prone to further increase the congestion on the city streets as motorists tend to move on as soon as the countdown begins.
"Our statistics show there is a tendency of reckless driving in the city, especially in the age group 25-40 years. The traffic manager in a recent meeting concluded the countdowns would rather lead to incidents of driver rushing to exit the lane as soon as the countdown entered the under 5 second bracket," noted Khalid.
Time for a change
Technical experts in the city, however, believe traffic signals across the city need urgent upgradation. Asad Ashfaq, a mechanical engineering expert at a reputed firm in Muscat, explained the existing conventional signal systems were outdated as they use pre–programmed daily signal timing schedules, and do not take into account the constantly changing traffic patterns during different hours of each day.
"Congestion can vary significantly and very frequently because the volume of traffic on the roads constantly change. The current mechanism fails to take into account this very crucial aspect of smooth traffic movement. There's so much variability, in the number of cars at each light and the direction each car takes leaving an intersection, that roads can fill up in no time. Equally frustrating is the opposite extreme, where a driver sits at a red light for minutes even though there are no vehicles in sight to take advantage of the intersecting green."
He said the lights needed to be upgraded to Adaptive Signal Control Technology (ACST) which adjusts the timing of red, yellow and green lights automatically to accommodate changing traffic patterns and ease traffic congestion. "Rather than operating on a timer, the new approach makes traffic lights go with the traffic flow. By measuring vehicle inflow and outflow through each intersection simultaneously as it occurs, and coordinating lights with only their nearest neighbours, it results in a system-wide smoothness in vehicular movement," noted Asad.
The ROP does not have any plans to upgrade the traffic lights as of now. However, Wahid Ali S. Al Kharusi, President, Oman Road Safety Association, stressed that sensitising people was more necessary than installing new traffic lights. Traffic movement could be smoothened, and clogging at signals avoided if people drove more sensibly, accommodating fellow drivers, he asserted.
"Even if the most advanced lights are installed, how could it stop the people from cutting lanes, and jumping signals? The green light flickers indicating either to slow down or to pass quickly and amber is meant for stopping comfortably, but people overlook the flickering green and amber and even attempt jumping the red signals. This often leads to accidents at junctions besides delaying the flow of traffic from the lane which faces a green," he pointed out adding that signal jumping was the main reason for blockades at many traffic junctions.
According to Dhafir Khanfar Al Shukaili, Head of Statistics, ROP, traffic signal blockades contributes majorly to the overall congestion on roads in the city. Traffic incidents could be managed so that congestion is reduced, he said adding that the ROP plans to adopt a 'Traffic Incident Management' approach to effectively curb the traffic problems, especially at the traffic signals.
"Traffic Incident Management is an important tool in lessening the impact of non-recurring congestion as well as providing for a safer environment for drivers. It is a planned and coordinated approach to detect, respond to, and remove traffic incidents and restore traffic capacity as safely and quickly as possible," Al Shukaili explained.
Alternate methods to ease traffic congestion, like widening of roads and construction of flyovers were also being undertaken extensively in the city to tackle the problem on a broader perspective, Al Shukaili said adding that the flyover construction between Wadi Kabir- Darsait was in its final phase while flyovers for other busy junctions are also being planned to ease congestion on many roads in Muscat.
Reacting to the long-term plans of installing flyovers, Asad Ashfaq also asserted that upgradation of the traffic signals would be much cost and time effective in comparison to alternative methods of traffic control being taken up by the authorities. "Covering the busy intersections with flyovers might take years. How are the commuters supposed to cope with the menace till then?" he asked.
It is well known that high precision security cameras have also been installed to track down traffic offenders at all the major intersections across the city. The number of patrol squads has also been significantly increased, informs Khalid Amri adding that every major traffic signal across the city would now have a patrol car to keep vigil, backed by the bike squad.
More stringent rules for offenders have also been implemented recently, which include cancellation of the driving license and legal action against the driver after the third offence. Acquiring a driver's license has also became tougher recently; the license will now be granted only after holding a learner's license for a year, during which even a single incident of traffic signal jumping would result in cancellation of the license, revealed Amri.
Wahid Ali S. Al Kharusi
President, Oman Road Safety Association
"In general, the algorithms improve traffic, but maybe not as much as they do on paper because we are still human. It is still humans driving the cars, and it is we who need to be more prompt and efficient first."
Al Hail resident
"Traffic signals at the busy intersections across the city are a menace. The authorities need to address the situation soon. Movement during peak hours becomes a headache, more often completely blocked for hours."
"At many places the traffic lights function abnormally, sometimes blinking directly red from green and vice versa. Also, 5-second signals at busy junctions lead to chaos on roads."
Words on the street
• The flickering green signal means to either get ready to stop, or, if leading, or very near to the signal, then make haste to exit. The amber, preceding the red, is meant to stop comfortably, and not to exit at all
• Moving slower and strictly in your lane will in fact reduce the duration of travel by averting blockades and congestions.
• Give way to emerging vehicles. If a vehicle is entering from an adjoining ending lane, slow down your vehicle. Do not pace.
• The vehicle which arrives at an intersection first, has the right to pass first. Accommodate accordingly, and the traffic congestion would be eased to a great extent.
• Avoid using mobile phones at all costs while at wheel. It is a big cause of distraction, and may lead to accidents.