jump to navigation

Blinded by the Lights August 27, 2006

Posted by TimTheFoolMan in color blindness, Science & Technology, Technology.

Color blindness sucks.

Let me rephrase. Being “red-green pastel color-blind,” along with roughly 10% of the male population, in a world where color vision is assumed, really sucks.

traffic light

To elaborate further, what really sucks is that so many of the components of everyday life in the United States demand usable color vision. It’s not just a matter of convenience, it’s a matter of safety.

Seeing Red
Tonight, I was on my way home from the grocery. We’ve had some bad storms roll through, so it wasn’t surprising that a couple of the traffic lights were without power, and therefore flashing.

Normally, when I’m travelling in unfamiliar territory at night, I make it clear to any front-seat passenger that they have the responsibility to call out to me if a flashing light up ahead is flashing red or yellow. (To my eyes, the red and yellow lights of a normal traffic light are almost indistinguishable.) Fortunately, a flashing red light is almost always accompanied by a stop sign or other indication, so getting the “FLASHING RED” alert from the passenger is hopefully redundant, but always appreciated.

However, when a standard traffic light goes into “battery backup mode,” it defaults to flashing either red or yellow for the two intersecting streets, depending on the pre-programmed configuration. Typically, this is based on the nature of the road, and will either be flashing-red for one set of paths and flashing-yellow for the other, or flashing-red for both streets.

In the daytime, this isn’t an issue for me, as I can easily determine the light color by position. Regardless of the jurisdictions preference for horizontal or vertical traffic lights, the middle light is always yellow, and the red and green are on either side (or top & bottom). At night, it gets a bit more challenging.

Red Light District
So here I was, cruising along a four-lane road, and come up on a flashing traffic light. I can’t tell if it’s red or yellow, so I’m trying to analyze what I might be. There is a subdivision on one side of the intersection, and a strip-mall on the other. Logically, it should be a yellow light. Ooops! It’s red, and I slam on the brakes instead of cruising through it cautiously.

Less than a mile later, on the same street, another flashing light up ahead. Yellow, or red? Well, this time, it’s a 3-way intersection, but the third leg of the intersection is a two lane road–not just the entrance to an intersection, but a road that literally goes across the county. Naturally, I assume this flashing light to be red… but no. I realize at the last minute that it’s yellow.

Much Ado about Nothing?
Fortunately, none of the situations tonight posed a huge threat to my safety. Neither of the interesections was busy, and there wasn’t traffic behind me that could have been put in danger by a sudden decision to stop.

Even so, it frustrates and annoys me that so many of the things we deal with on a day-to-day basis presume that I can see colors the way the rest of the world can. I can’t, and short of custom contact lenses (which have some annoying side effects), there’s nothing I can do about it.

Note: If you’re not sure about your color vision, here is an online version of the “Ishihara Test” to determine if you suffer from red-green color blindness.


1. BluJewel - August 28, 2006

Oh dear! Sounds like a serious hazard and it’s a good thing you have a logical process in order to cope with it. On a lighter note, it’s a good thing you don’t take Viagra, it causes color confusion. Or maybe you have taken it and that’s why your colors ar skewed. (just playing)

2. Tim - August 28, 2006

Since I’ve done this all my life, it’s almost to the point that I don’t notice it. Only in situations like the above does it ever come into play. However, when it does happen, it’s very frustrating.

Interestingly, my Mom was part of the .01% of the female population that has red-green color blindness. In contrast, Dad had wonderful color vision, but absolutely no sense about what clothes went with what. 😀

I wish I could blame it on Viagra, but I first noticed it in grade school, when they put the Ishihara tests up on the wall, and I saw a different number from almost everyone else in class. If a child reads early (as I did), it’s even worse, because you learn to grab the crayon that says “Red” or “Orange” instead of trusting what your color vision tells you.

In that regard, I just figured I didn’t possess the same skill in discerning subtle color differences, just like some kids were good athletes, some were brainiacs, and some were class clowns who pulled the hair of the girl in front of them, and got sent to the principal’s office. (I’ll leave it up to the reader to figure out which of those broad categories I fell into.) – Tim

3. Grace, T - August 28, 2006

that would bother me. so sorry you can’t see red and green in all their glory…If I was coming to a light and not sure what it was flashing, I would put my hazards on and approach as if it was flashing red. my hazards ought to be enough to give me some space from anyone behind me.

It humbles us to rely on others for basic things, even seemingly inconsequential things…
I haven’t had a sense of smell for almost 3 years now …it’s happened before (for 5 years with sinus polyps the last time). I hope those close to me would tell me if I smell bad or if i am burning something…humbling things to ask “what color is that?” “do I smell bad?”

4. Tim - August 28, 2006

As far as I know, my sense of smell is intact (smell is a really powerful memory trigger for me), but I have asked both of those questions in the same day. Not sure if that says more about my cleanliness or my color-blindness. – Tim

5. velvetandsilk - September 9, 2006

I just couldn’t imagine being colourblind… Colours like red and green are incredibly important to me- I love seeing all the different shades. I’ve got a friend who’s colourblind, and just like you, he says he finds it a pain, because everything’s designed for people with full colour vision. I guess it’s a bit like being left handed…

Maybe they could use different flash sequences for different coloured lights

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: