County-Installed Solar Backup Traffic Beacons Reduce Crashes after Hurricane Ian
With each storm that blows through Florida, there are opportunities to learn lessons to harden communities against future storms. This year, Hurricane Ian helped to prove that an innovation born of Hurricane Irma's aftermath improved safety on the streets - Power Outage Emergency Beacons.
Severe tropical weather systems along the U.S. coastlines generate unique threats to infrastructure. Among the most difficult-to-manage impacts are widespread and long-term power outages, particularly for traffic signals. Roadways with dark traffic signals in the wake of a storm add additional threats to an already dangerous environment. Hillsborough County, Florida, has devised a unique and innovative solution to this persistent problem.
Drivers approaching an intersection at night with a dark traffic signal know the danger. Depending on the extent of the power outage and time of day, even an alert driver may not see the intersection at all. Often, people do not know to treat these intersections as four-way stops. Drivers unfamiliar with the area may not even be aware that they are cruising through an intersection. This can lead to devastating collisions.
In Florida, with a whole season devoted to hurricanes, it is common for large numbers of traffic lights to lose power during storms. Although traffic lights have backup systems that provide temporary power after they lose electricity, these systems are battery-based and only last six to eight hours. During a large storm with extensive damage to power lines, this usually is not enough time for crews to restore electricity when multiple intersections go dark at once.
To reduce the chances of crashes at intersections during prolonged power outages, Hillsborough County is installing unique solar-powered backup emergency beacons. The flashing red LED beacons are positioned alongside traffic signals. They're either mounted on a mast arm, suspended from span wires over the intersection, or attached to an upright pole alongside the road. Solar panels are installed to charge the battery-operated beacons. The beacons are only activated if the traffic light loses power and the backup battery system is spent. Once the emergency beacons are activated, the LED lights engage to turn the intersection into a four-way stop. These solar-powered beacons will operate indefinitely until crews can arrive at the intersection to set up temporary signage or repair the traffic lights. The technology is similar to the solar-powered traffic installations often used to power school-zone signals.
This project began in 2018 and encompasses over 300 intersections within the county. The solar-powered beacons program was developed in-house by Hillsborough County Public Works staff dedicated to keeping residents safe. It is a solution born of necessity. At over 1,000 square miles and around 1.5 million residents, Hillsborough County is among Florida's largest counties by both area and population. It features the dense urban environments of Tampa as well as heavily populated rural areas, all connected by an extensive roadway system. Traffic light outages, particularly if they are widespread and extended, pose serious safety risks across the county.
So far, over 150 solar-powered beacons have been installed and have proven to be highly successful. Following Hurricane Ian, traffic lights equipped with the solar powered beacons worked exactly as planned. When Hurricane Ian made landfall near Cayo Costa on Sept. 28, 2022, wind speeds peaked over 60 mph in Tampa Bay. As a result, approximately 170 traffic signals were affected across the County. The LED beacons remained anchored in place and fully functional though the storm.
The County is about halfway complete to all 316 County-owned intersections being fitted with the new technology with plans to finish the project by 2024. In the meantime, drivers are reminded to always approach intersections with dark traffic lights with extreme caution. Coming to a complete stop and looking both ways could save your life and the lives of your passengers, nearby pedestrians, and other drivers.