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LED Lights: Can they fight crime too?

Cities are well aware that switching to LED lights—in their holiday displays, office corridors, and streetlights—can save lots of money. But here’s another surprising advantage: Police believe that the cooler, more focused light from LED streetlights might actually help fight crime.

That’s partly because some people who witness crimes at night can more accurately report details, such as colors, under LED lights, a radio report from Seattle’s KPLU explained last week. It can prevent someone from mistaking a blue car from white, for instance.

Plus, cities that switch over to LED streetlights can plow the money they save on electricity back into essential services, like police. Seattle, which has already installed about 20,000 more energy efficient streetlights, estimates it has saved the city about $1 million. That could fund 8 to 10 more police officers, in vehicles, making streets safer.

But Seattle isn’t just taking the link between LED lights and safety for granted. As this story in the New York Times details, the city recently did some comparison testing. The city’s utility interspersed LED and regular streetlights along a well traveled arterial in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood.

In the evenings, 300 residents filled out surveys, weighing in on the quality of the light and how well they could see. They were asked questions like: Would it be safe to walk here at night? Can you see colors? Does the light allow you to drive a car safely? They also rode in a test car, pressing buttons when they were able to see markers that had been placed in the street.

Seattle is the fourth city to conduct the streetlight survey (along with Anchorage, AK and San Diego and San Jose, CA). Here’s how the New York Times summarized the experiment:

“Utilities want to know whether LED streetlights, tens of thousands of which have already been installed in parts of many cities, including Seattle and Los Angeles, are a promising long-term technology that could shape large government contracts. Municipalities want to be sure that the significant savings in energy and costs LEDs can provide are sustainable enough to compensate for startup costs, but also that they do not threaten public safety or urban ambience.”

Results of Seattle’s survey are still out, much like the debates between couples who prefer to chop carrots in their kitchen under different kinds of lighting. We’ll keep our eyes out for the results, and update when they’re in.