The Sig in SigAlert Is Man Who Put Them on the Air

Dear Street Smart:

What, exactly, is a "SigAlert?" Is this term a contraction of the words signal-alert, and if so, to what signal is the reference being made?

At the scene of an accident, is there any evidence--such as a CHP flashing light--that would indicate that this situation had been deemed a SigAlert? Do some accidents qualify for SigAlert status, while others do not? Who determines when this name can properly be applied--the CHP or the newscasters?

Bruce McGowan, Capistrano Beach The "Sig" in "SigAlert" is a man, not a signal.

Loyd Sigmon, former general manager of Golden West Broadcasting, invented the SigAlert back in 1955. We reached Sigmon at his home north of Los Angeles to get a full rundown on how the term was coined.

Today, a SigAlert is issued by the California Highway Patrol and broadcast by traffic reporters over local radio stations to warn motorists of an accident that will block lanes for 30 minutes or more. But it was much more involved in decades past, Sigmon recalled.

With television just beginning to blossom in the mid-1950s, Sigmon was looking for ways to keep radio listeners glued to his station. Noting the startling increases in traffic on local highways, he approached the late Los Angeles Police Chief William Parker with a proposal that the department call his station when major traffic tie-ups occurred.

Parker balked, Sigmon recalled. But then the broadcaster came up with the idea of a special electronic system that would allow police dispatchers to trigger a sub-audible tone that would activate SigAlert receivers in local radio stations.

The receivers would automatically tape the message, then flash a red light and sound a buzzer that alerted each radio station's engineer. By pressing a button, the engineer could air the police message within a matter of seconds, often breaking into the normal programming to do it. Fittingly enough, Parker decided to name the new system after Sigmon.

In those days, SigAlerts warned listeners not just about auto accidents but train wrecks, floods, gas leaks and missing children. But the SigAlert lost much of its dramatic appeal in subsequent years as stations took to sending reporters out to such events and broadcasting regular traffic updates.

When the CHP took over the monitoring of local freeways in 1969, it also assumed the responsibility of issuing SigAlerts, and the special bulletin became confined mostly to traffic matters as it is today. None of the special SigAlert transmitters are used anymore.

What constitutes a SigAlert is up to the officer at the scene. If the officer believes a wreck will block lanes for more than half an hour, the SigAlert is called and radio stations let the public know. There is nothing at the scene of an accident, such as a special flashing light or other warning, that marks it as a SigAlert.

Loyd Sigmon finds it all a bit remarkable. He never commercialized his invention but has been honored by the National Safety Council, the Los Angeles City Council and County Board of Supervisors and the governor.

"I ran a multimillion-dollar corporation," Sigmon mused, "but it's the SigAlert that people remember me for."

Dear Street Smart:

Caltrans has posted signs along the Costa Mesa Freeway reminding motorists that the minimum fine for violating commuter lane regulations is $246. Many metered on-ramps have one lane for single-passenger vehicles with another diamond lane for multiple-passenger vehicles. Are these on-ramps considered a part of the commuter lane system and subject to the same fines?

Ray Bracy Tustin It may not be entirely clear from the signs, but the fine applies to on-ramps as well as the car-pool lanes. In fact, a fair percentage of the tickets issued by the CHP go to violators of the regulations applying to the diamond-bedecked on-ramps. So watch out.

Dear Street Smart:

Regarding dark tinting of automobile windows, some erroneous claims are being made.

The opaquely tinted rear window is a serious hazard to bicycle riders. As we ride city streets adjacent to parked cars, we cyclists must always be certain there is no one sitting in the driver's seat as we pass. If there is a driver seated, one of two disasters may occur: either the car has just parked, and the driver is about to open his door, threatening to hit the rider; or the driver may be preparing to pull away from the curb, putting the bicyclist in jeopardy.

Regarding the use of tinted glass to protect someone from skin cancer, the tinting has no bearing on the transmission of ultraviolet light. All glass, including the clear glass in most automobiles, inherently blocks transmission of ultraviolet light.

In addition, tinting the rear window prevents a driver from seeing through the windows of the car immediately in front of him. This prevents the trailing driver from being able to see very far up the road to spot the new high-mounted center brake lights now mounted on cars, canceling some of the benefits of this warning light. When cars are close together in line, as on a crowded freeway, it is most helpful to be able to see the brake lights many cars ahead.

Frank W. Ellis Los Alamitos Certainly it does make it harder for bicyclists to look into a car to see if the driver is preparing to pull out from the curb or swing a door open. I would suggest that bike riders approaching such cars try to steer a wide enough berth that they won't get caught by a door. Moreover, they should watch for telltale signs of a car getting ready to pull out--a puff of smoke from the tailpipe or front wheels being turned, for instance.

As for the efficacy of the tinting for people with skin cancer, I'll leave that one for physicians to decide. The law states that a motorist can put temporary screens that can be removed at nighttime on side windows if such protection is prescribed by a doctor.

The point about the tinting blocking the view for a trailing vehicle is well taken. But the tinting is, in many ways, no different than following a big truck that you can't see around. Personally, when I'm stuck on a freeway behind a vehicle that obstructs my view of the road ahead, I get in another lane.

Street Smart appears Mondays in the Orange County section of The Times. Readers are invited to submit comments and questions about traffic, commuting and what makes it difficult to get around in Orange County. Letters will be published in upcoming columns. No anonymous letters will be accepted. Please call (714) 966-5944 or write to Eric Bailey, c/o Street Smart, The Times Orange County, P.O. Box 2008, Costa Mesa, Calif. 92626. Or you can fax a letter to (714) 966-7711. Include your full name, address and day and evening phone numbers.

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