When the time came to replace the friendly neighborhood traffic cop, the go-to design in 1926 was the dummy light.
Standing sentinel in the intersection of town square, this small-town traffic light took center stage during the industrial revolution leading up to World War II and was the go-to design of the day. Not only did the new technology assist local police with traffic control, the beacons stood as symbols of progress as we transitioned from buggy to Benz.
Debuting in London in 1868 Parliament Square, the traffic light promised safer, quicker travel for early automobiles and pedestrians. This type of light was popular in rural areas or low traffic intersections and freed up limited local police departments to focus their efforts on the community. A precursor to the modern roundabout, the dummy light directed traffic through small towns throughout the 1900s.
But as automated systems became more widespread and available, the dummy light took a back seat to modern traffic lights, circular intersections and roundabouts. The design became obsolete as vehicle size and volume grew – they became crash hazards and expensive to maintain.
Roundabouts have exploded in popularity in the U.S. in recent years and have done much to alleviate congestion at busy intersections. But just what makes a modern roundabout? According to the Eastern Medina Post, an intersection must follow a litany of rules in order to be considered a true modern roundabout and not simply a circular intersection:
If the entry lane has a stop sign, it’s not a modern roundabout.
If you could play a game of football in the center landscaped area, it’s not a modern roundabout.
If the circular roadway has a stop sign, yield sign or signal, it’s not a modern roundabout.
If you don’t have to slow down to enter it, it’s not a modern roundabout.
If you have to change lanes in the circular roadway to exit, it’s not a modern roundabout.
If you can easily drive faster than 20 mph in the circular roadway, it’s not a modern roundabout.
If it has a park for pedestrians or a building in the middle, it’s not a modern roundabout.
The last two dummy lights in the U.S., in Croton-on-Hudson, NY, and Beacon, NY, stand today and expect their sister light in Canajoharie, NY, which was removed after a crash in 2022, to rejoin them as the oldest operating traffic lights in America in April 2024.
Suggestions of how to protect the light to prevent another takedown include installing the light on a larger platform or to install a circular intersection as a way to accommodate the tractor trailers and semi-trucks that require more space to make deliveries. Despite the roadblocks, the residents of these small towns see their lights as part of their village identity – and fight to preserve the historic value they bring to town square.
by Christa Errigo
Featured photo: Canajoharie, NY, expects the reinstallation of their beloved light in April.