(The Detroit News) Tired of sitting at endless red lights? Frustrated by lights that turn from green to red too quickly, trapping you in traffic? Now anyone can breeze through congested intersections just like the police, thanks to a $300 dashboard device that changes traffic lights from red to green, making nasty commutes a thing of the past and leaving other drivers open-mouthed at your ability to manipulate traffic.
But what if everyone had one?
That’s the fear of traffic control officials, who believe chaos would take over the roads. That’s also the potential facing communities from Troy to Washington Township as Internet-marketed knockoffs of the device — originally intended only for police and fire vehicles — have become available to the public.
The knockoffs have traffic engineers investigating whether lockout measures will work against the copycats and whether hundreds of thousands of dollars in traffic technology investments will become obsolete.
Police are worried about the possibility of intersection chaos if people duel over control for lights. But even more fundamentally, the dashboard device may be impossible to detect even from a police car right next to it, and it may be perfectly legal anyway.
“The potential for chaos is enormous,” Macomb County Sheriff Mark Hackel said.
The traffic light changer, called the MIRT for mobile infrared transmitter, emits a beam with a 1,500-foot range to a receiver installed at the intersection, which changes the light immediately, allowing an intersection to clear before a fire or rescue truck approaches.
“That’s unreal. I want one,” Hackel said while watching a test device change the lights at the touch of a button.
The devices are normally installed on the fire truck and respond automatically. The MIRT requires the press of a button and plugs into the cigarette lighter.
Unlike other devices, like radar jammers and certain laser detectors that emit radio signals, the MIRT and other signal changers emit an infrared beam, so it doesn’t run afoul of the Federal Communications Commission, said Chelsea Fallon, a spokeswoman for the agency.
Because no laws apply to the MIRT in Michigan and elsewhere, new ones may have to be written. “I guess I have something to talk to the (state) legislators about,” Hackel said.
Copycats sold online
While government officials search legal texts for possible legal infractions, dealers are lining up to sell MIRTs.
Scott Pregler of Shelby Township was one of the first, adding it to his other business of after-market aerodynamic car body parts “like that stuff in ‘The Fast and the Furious,’ you know?” he said, referring to a movie in which a gang of drivers in super-fast cars repeatedly outwit the police.
Pregler said he hasn’t even tried the device yet, and plans to focus on selling it to small police and fire agencies that can’t afford the more expensive version of the technology, marketed by 3M, which bigger cities and counties buy.
“We’ll probably try to avoid (selling to the public) if it may cause problems in the future,” said Pregler, whose company is named Vision Aerodynamics.
The 3M knockoffs, like the MIRT, are available on the Internet, but they work only at intersections that have receivers. There are about 85 such intersections in Troy, along Big Beaver and Rochester Road and other main corridors. Farmington and Novi also have invested in the receivers, which can run $15,000 to $20,000 per intersection, including wiring and installation.
But the real vulnerability may lie in whether the receivers can lock out devices like the MIRT and read only the signal from specific fire trucks. Many receivers already purchased by Troy, for example, can’t be locked out and can’t be upgraded, said Frank Carrier, the primary 3M dealer in southeast Michigan.
Troy traffic engineer John Abraham said newer receivers are programmable, making it unclear how vulnerable the city is to MIRTs.
“We had a scare a few years ago when we realized there was a potential for the technology to get out, so we upgraded,” Abraham said.
In Macomb, Washington Township along Old Van Dyke has been a test site. But the county has only six intersections with receivers, and the technology was able to lock out the MIRT on Friday.
“But if something comes up that gets around the lock, I’ll take them all out. It would be chaos,” said Dan McInerney, traffic operations engineer at the Road Commission of Macomb County.
For now, Macomb allows only fire trucks to have the device, fearing that if police and paramedics also have it, it would cause havoc at larger emergency scenes.
Wayne County has none of the intersection systems, mostly because of a fear that if there was an accident because of the light change, the county would be held legally responsible, spokeswoman Vanessa Denha said. But there are some similar devices on traffic lights outside some firehouses to help trucks get out.
Because Michigan’s communities have not invested in the traffic technology as heavily as some states, problems with copycat devices like the MIRT are just beginning to appear.
Competition, critics grow
Tim Gow, who markets the device through his company, FAC, which also sells high-end weapons and accessories to police, said he’s not using the Internet to appeal to the public, but only to level the playing field in a David-versus-Goliath market.
“We will need an army of distributors to go up against 3M,” Gow said. He said he is aiming to sell to small police, fire and emergency agencies who can’t afford the 3M systems but can afford his $499 device, which is higher than his direct-to-the-dealer price.
He says he has rejected some dealers — including a pizza delivery guy who wanted to use the device. He asks dealers to promise not to sell directly to the public and to use their device for demonstrations only.
Gow knows he may not hear about infractions. But if he does, he says he will revoke a dealership.
“I have a highly unique product here, and I’m going beyond what I have to do to sell a legal product,” Gow said. “The BATF (federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) and the FBI, these are organizations I answer to every day. We have no issues with these governing bodies.”
But if communities start locking out the MIRT, Gow may not be able to compete at all.
Frank Carrier, the 3M dealer, says that’s only fair. If Gow wants to compete, he should create his own system, including a receiver that can be locked as well, Carrier said. Providing only a transmitter as his business is parasitic, he said.
However long the MIRT survives, it’s only one of a number of devices that frustrated and lead-footed drivers have snatched up over the years with an aim of having an advantage over the police. The difference is, few of them actually work.
“People are gullible, and they have discretionary income,” said P. David Fisher, professor emeritus of electrical engineering at Michigan State University. He said the issue of a national campaign to expose the businesses that sell radar jammers and laser detectors that, by definition, if they are effective are illegal, has been discussed at public safety conventions.
“It’s a very interesting ethical dilemma. Here are all these gullible people. Why should we protect them? On the other hand, they are causing a number of crashes.”