Is there any point pressing buttons at traffic lights?

pedestrian crossing buttonWe all like pressing buttons, it gives us a sense of control over our world. But is there any point in pressing the big silver button at Sydney’s traffic lights? This has been the topic of some local debate: So some research was required.

The simple answer is ‘yes’ but only pressing it once.

Pressing the button does send a signal to the traffic control center. It only sends the signal once though; repeated presses make absolutely no difference. While that’s a bit boring, it does mean that all those people repeatedly whacking away at the button are utterly wasting their time.

More, every single person pressing the button during the busy hours in central Sydney is wasting their time: The button has no effect at all from 7am to 7pm Monday to Wednesday, and 7am to 9pm Thursday to Saturday. During those hours the buttons simply don’t register. The assumption is that there’s so much constant traffic during those times that the system just needs to run without any outside interference.

The truth is that, even with this knowledge, it is very hard not to press the button several times when you arrive at a pedestrian crossing. Most people will press the button even if there’s already someone at the crossing: There’s a burning need to make sure that button is properly pressed, and the danger of over-estimating the button pressing capacity of our fellow pedestrians is ever-present. What if the person in front you hasn’t actually pressed the button? Maybe they don’t know what it’s for? The psychology of feeling that you’re in control of your own fate overcomes reality every time.

In some ways that’s the interesting thing about the buttons. Even when they don’t actually have any impact on the lights, pressing a button can make the time you spend waiting seem to pass more quickly. But now we all have our own smartphones with buttons galore to press, I’m going to bet that the traffic light buttons are taking less of a beating today than they were a few years ago.

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