Colored Lights

Don’t you wonder about colored lights:  the kind that you see on ambulances and police cars?  Don’t you think it’s getting out of hand? There was a time, I think, when all police cars were furnished with a simple rotating red lamp. That rotating red lamp seemed — and seems — like plenty.

Now, a rotating red lamp would seem quaint. Red lights, blue lights, white lights! Flashing, sliding, circling! This morning, while driving to work, I thought a circus had come to town.  It was a cop car, stopped behind an empty car, which was abandoned by the side of the road.  Traffic snarled.  Necks stretched.  Children’s noses were pressed up to the window, wondering what had happened.  Perhaps the driver had stopped to take a leak.  Now he was afraid to come back to his car.

I wonder how that circus came to be.  At some point in history, I assume, the policeman, if he was interested, may have stopped his car, gotten out, and perhaps, if necessary, waved traffic around. Very low-tech.

Over time, however, when it became available, that same policeman turned on the red light on his roof.  He may have had one already installed, turned on for chasing down speeders.  The red light was intended to alert passers-by that something was going on, that others should slow down.  Eventually, the policeman’s training program had a paragraph inserted, instructing him to turn it on as an alert to passing motorists. Someone got a demerit for failing to turn it on.

Inevitably, someone observed that, if it rotated, the light might be distinguishable from the rear lights of passing traffic.  Also, it was visible in all directions — 360 degrees — which made it seem more important. Sometimes, it was important.  So they did it.  A rotating red light.

But then it took off!  Such a phenomenom!  First, perhaps, a red and white combination light.  Then a blue and white combination, because the blue became associated with police, and red with an ambulance. And then a red, white and blue combination!  Now there were three colors!  Maybe with sound.  Would firecrackers be next?

The motion also seemed to undergo refinement.  The single rotating red light had given way to an array of lights:  sometimes three, sometimes five, some blinking, some pulsating, some moving around on a track. Apparently, someone decided that a pulsing strobing multi-color display, had more stopping, warning, or signaling power  than a simple rotating red light.

I know: an audio-visual firecracker simulation.

Who, I wondered, was responsible for these decisions? Was there a meeting of police commissioners, mayors, traffic cops, ambulance drivers, concerned citizens, etc.?  Was there a report: the impact of multi-colored variable-patterned light displays on vehicular traffic at rush hour?

Or did some purchasing agent go to a Las Vegas emergency equipment convention, where he was enticed by competitive vendors, dancing lights, and scantily dressed girls?  Did one township feel its emergencies were treated as inferior because they only warranted a standard display versus another township’s deluxe display?

Forgive me.  I can’t help but think that our police and other emergency workers are suffering from some sort of hero complex: that all the circus effects are really to call attention to themselves.

Or perhaps it is reversed:  we, the public, feel that these emergency workers aren’t recognized, that they do not get their share of fame or wealth. We feel guilty.  Inevitably, we hear, like the sonorous voice of God:  “Safety First.”  I have never heard anyone challenge any governmental expenditure on the grounds that spending on a little bit more safety is not worth the cost.

Which is not to say that we’re willing to pay them what they’re worth.  But, on the other hand, if some lights and noise make them feel better, perhaps it will boost morale.





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