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The Straight Dope

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Why are there push buttons at intersections that say "push me and traffic will stop so you can cross quicker," or something like that? It doesn't work! I wouldn't say I'm neurotic about it, but about 15 years ago I quit my job to hitchhike around the USA to find a push-to-walk traffic signal that would actually stop traffic. After countless pairs of shoes and as many near misses with cars, I can say that without a doubt none of these traffic signals provide the pedestrian with a quicker cross. What's going on? If I'm right maybe we can work some kind of lawsuit scam!

--Markus T. Pellicori, Baltimore

I like a man who takes things seriously, Markus, but just the same I'm glad you weren't my partner in chem lab. The usual explanation for the apparent inertness of push-to-walk buttons is the foolish expectations of users, who think the buttons will instantly bring traffic to a screeching halt. While many oppressed pedestrians would find this satisfying, it would also result in a lot of rear-end collisions. Instead, PTW buttons are set up so the "walk" signal lights at some nondisruptive point in the signal cycle, e.g., shortly after the previous signal up the street goes red. Since many suburban stoplights are on a two-minute-plus cycle, many impatient pedestrians erroneously conclude the button is broken.

Or so the engineers say. However, Cecil has been lied to before. I decided the only way to be sure was to stake out an actual PTW button, which happened to be at the crosswalk (no cross street) outside the traffic-court building in downtown Chicago. During Friday afternoon rush hour I spent half an hour pushing that damn button without any observable effect at all. It was 25 seconds "walk," 50 seconds "don't walk," button or no.

At 11 PM it was a different story. The "walk" signal didn't light unless you pushed the button, in which case the signal changed a second or two after the light went red at the previous signal up the street. Problem was, at that hour there were hardly any pedestrians, and the few there were didn't bother to push the button, no doubt having been burned by the signal's nonresponsiveness at 5 that afternoon. Conclusion: Push-to-walk buttons only work when there's nobody around to push them. To put it more charitably, the buttons generally are wired to insert a "walk" phase into an otherwise walkless signal cycle, not speed an existing "walk" phase up.

UNCA CECIL: NOT SMILING ANYMORE

Cecil's minions were crowing on a local radio show the other day about having finally found the people responsible for the smiley face (April 23), only to get two alarming calls from listeners. Both had worked for the same Los Angeles ad agency, Carson Roberts (now apparently defunct), and both distinctly recalled seeing a smiley face on the firm's notepads, complete with the slogan "Have a happy day." The year: 1961. The year we said the smiley face was invented: 1963.

Naturally we were concerned. If the callers were right, there were only two explanations: either (1) some bizarre kink in the space-time continuum had enabled the people in LA to know about something that would not be created in Worcester, Massachusetts, until two years later, or (2) we were wrong. Sadly, we resigned ourselves to giving the heave to our previous views about chronological cause and effect.

First, however, we wanted proof. We asked Phil Renaud, a Chicago illustrator and former Carson Roberts employee, to send us a sheet of C.R.'s notepaper-cum-smiley, which, amazingly, he still had. When we got it we immediately tore up the letter we were about to send to the physics society. The notepaper did in fact have a smiley face, but it was not the classic full-frontal two-dots-and-a-curve-on-a-yellow-circle that we all know and love/loathe. Rather, it was a three-quarters view of a not-quite-so-brain-dead-looking little guy with hair, nose, etc. No yellow, either, just b and w. Clearly a distant cousin at best to the smiley Harvey R. Ball drew in 1963.

One thing, though. The notepaper did have the slogan "Have a happy day" on it, which we previously had been led to believe was composed by Murray Spain, one half of the team of Philadelphia brothers that started the smiley fad in 1970. Murray's claim of originality now clearly lies in the dust. His only consolation is that he made a gazillion bucks.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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