Decision Time

When you’re driving and see an upcoming traffic light turn yellow, you face an urgent choice: stop quickly or try to run through the intersection before the light turns red. In 1962, Stanford aeronautics professor Howard Seifert worked out that you can choose either alternative if

\displaystyle  \left ( v_{0}T + \frac{1}{2}a^{+}T^{2} - s \right ) > d_{0} > \frac{1}{2}\left (v_{0}^{2} / a^{-} \right ),

where your car’s initial speed is v0 ft/sec, its maximum acceleration is a+ ft/sec2, its maximum deceleration is a ft/sec2, the duration of the yellow light is T seconds, and the intersection is s feet wide and d0 feet away.

“[I]f the left or right inequality is reversed, you will not be able to run through or to stop, respectively,” he concluded. “It can be shown that there are situations where neither alternative will work and hazard and law violation are inevitable, as some palpitating drivers will testify.”

(Howard S. Seifert, “The Stop-Light Dilemma,” American Journal of Physics 30:3 [1962], 216-218.)