Stale Green not a cheap toothpaste, it's a traffic light

January 30, 2007|by TIM ROWLAND

When I'm sitting in the dentist's chair, my main objective is to try to stay alive. It takes all my concentration, so I'm usually not terribly conscious of extraneous conversations or events.

However, as I was having my teeth cleaned, I heard Taryn, the pickmaster general, mention something about a "Stale Green."

At first I thought she was talking about something she found on my teeth.

But it turned out it had something to do with traffic patterns, which immediately distracted me from the chiseling, since human driving behavior is a topic close to my heart.

You might not have heard of a stale green, because it's more of a Seattle expression. It made its way to the Smile Design Centre's offices courtesy of one-time Seattle resident Kateigh.

As I understand it, the event of a Stale Green occurs when you are driving at some distance from an intersection and notice that the light has been green for a long time.


This means that in all likelihood it's about to change before you get there, so the reflexive response to a Stale Green is to slow down.

At least it is if you are - what's a euphemistic way of putting it - a "defensive driver," like Kateigh.

But there's more to it, she explained. A Stale Green becomes even staler, as it were, if there are no cars between you and the intersection in question. This means that there is nothing to keep the highway motion sensors triggered, thus no "instructions" to the light to stay green. Conversely, if you notice no cars ahead of you, but a line of cars waiting at the intersection's red light, this means the cross-street motion sensors have been triggered, and the light is just itching to change.

Obviously, this is a complex and multi-faceted postulate, and I became quite absorbed. Mentally, I made a note to change my masters thesis from "People Who Back Into Their Parking Spaces, And The Demons That Afflict Them" to "Stale Green: Safe Driving Procedure Or Just Plain Nuts?"

Taryn and I were pretty much on the same side. While we acknowledged the science behind the Stale Green hypothesis, we were inclined to believe the proper response was a moderate increase in speed - and then if the light turns yellow, you put it to the floor.

This drew an inquisition from Kateigh as to the number of accidents we have experienced and the number of moving violations we had received.

Since the only tickets I have received in the past decade involved failure to wear a seatbelt, I ruled her line of questioning immaterial to the debate. Taryn's view was that she had mastered vehicular fundamentals, e.g., cars definitely need engine oil, everything else automotive amounted to "details."

Further, imparting Sir Isaac Newton's laws of motion, we suggested that those devoted to the idea of a Stale Green also must believe in a Stale Red, to wit, if you spot a red light at a distance it made sense to speed up.

We were in agreement, however, that a majority of Hagerstown drivers adheres to the Stale Green supposition, even if they don't know there is a word for it. Although whether the color green enters into it, I cannot say.

In my experience, Hagerstown drivers always approach a traffic light as if they're seeing one for the first time.

There's a certain "What's this?" native curiosity over the device, as if they're not sure whether the best course is to keep driving or stop and inspect. Red, yellow, green, it's all the same to them. And after a red light turns green, there is a predisposition to just sit there rock-still and stare at it, as if wondering whether there's going to be a second act.

There also is the curious habit of Hagerstown drivers simply to come to a stop in the middle of the street for no apparent reason, when there isn't a traffic signal in sight. It's almost as if Hagerstown drivers and traffic lights exist in different dimensions, unaware of each others' existence.

I was so into this traffic light concept that I was surprised, and I confess slightly disappointed, to find myself being released from captivity, the session completed.

A cleaning never went so fast. Too fast. Suddenly I began to suspect that Stale Green might have been a fictitious creation of Taryn and Kateigh, cleverly designed to distract me and keep me from whining and complaining. So before you go describing a Stale Green to anyone else, keep in mind that there might be no such thing.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2324 or via e-mail at You can listen to his podcast, The Rowland Rant, on

The Herald-Mail Articles