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Civilian use of MIRTs should get red light

Infrared transmitters that let users change traffic signals pose a threat to public safety if in the wrong hands.

November 12, 2003|Warren Brown | Washington Post

I've long championed the free market, but that right has its limits. It stops with the sale of products designed to disable or disrupt controls put in place for public safety.

One such product is the traffic light preemption emitter, also known as MIRT, for mobile infrared transmitter.

The device can change traffic lights from red to green in two seconds. Police and fire departments for years have used MIRTs, marketed by 3M Co., to clear intersections and halt traffic on emergency runs.

That is the proper and intended use for MIRTs.

It never was intended for the travel convenience of individual drivers. But, increasingly, that's how it's being used today.

Some Internet entrepreneurs, apparently more interested in cash than in road rage or the possibility of a fatal crash, have been offering MIRTs and knockoffs for $300. Their pitches are tempting: "Never wait for a red light again!" "Tired of Waiting for Red Lights?" and "Changes Stop Lights From Red to Green in Seconds."

Of course there are buyers, and at the moment the commerce is legal.

MIRTs emit an infrared beam. The Federal Communications Commission regulates the use of radio waves only; infrared transmission falls outside its purview. As a result, no federal law restricts civilian use of MIRT technology.

Many police and auto insurance executives see this as a problem. Traffic safety officials nationwide are considering laws to make civilian MIRT sales and use illegal. That's a good thing.

Controls such as stop lights and airport protocols are for the general protection of the public. Compliance with those controls should not be left to individual whim. People get injured or killed when that happens.

Imagine a world in which airline passengers could countermand the directives of air traffic controllers. The controllers tell a pilot to remain in a holding pattern. But an antsy passenger pushes a button to allow the aircraft to land in the midst of airport congestion. Would you want to fly that way?

Now imagine a more likely scenario with the civilian use of MIRT devices:

It is rush hour. Cars are lined up waiting for traffic signals to change. Someone gets tired of waiting. He pushes a button on his MIRT, which is plugged into his car's 12-volt outlet. The device sends an infrared beam 1,500 feet to a traffic light receiver at the intersection. The red light facing his line of traffic turns green, much to the surprise of motorists moving through the intersection on an opposing green signal.

At best, there'd be one heck of a case of gridlock. At worst, someone could be killed.

We're already paying a heavy price because of people who run red lights. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, disregard for red lights and other traffic control devices is the leading cause of urban crashes, representing 22% of the total. The institute assigns a $7-billion price tag to that carnage -- the cost of medical bills, lost productivity, insurance rate increases and property damage.

Whatever the cost, it is likely to go up rather than down with the civilian use of MIRTs. There ought to be a law on this one, a tough law.

MIRT devices are not radar detectors, whose sale and use I support. Detectors are informational devices. People who use them in the many states where they are legal usually don't speed up when they detect a police cruiser in the area. They slow down -- just as we all slow down when we see a police cruiser.

I put MIRTs in the same category with police radar-jamming devices. Civilians do not have the right to disrupt police operations, particularly those put in place for public safety. Civilian users of radar jammers have no intention to obey the law.

Sales of radar jammers, which generally use radio waves, are outlawed. Sales of civilian MIRTs should be outlawed too.

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