060: Red Light / Green Light / Who Can I / Sue Tonight?

Stella Case No. 060, Originally Published: 16 July 2003

Curtis Shannon was a bus driver for the New York City Transit Authority. About six weeks after starting his job he was involved in a minor accident. Part of the Authority’s normal post-accident procedure required Shannon to get a medical clearance to go back to work, but he failed his eye exam — he was found to be red-green color blind, and unable to distinguish traffic light colors.

060: Red Light / Green Light / Who Can I / Sue Tonight?
A NYCTA bus. Wait, was that light red or green? Eh, who cares? (Photo: Jonathan Riley, CC2.0, 2017, cropped.)

Shannon was given an exhaustive series of follow-up tests by several different doctors, including two consulting ophthalmologists not employed by the NYCTA, who confirmed his inability to see color correctly.

Federal law requires that commercial drivers be able to correctly discern the colors in traffic lights. Shannon was thus given a choice: resign his position or be fired. He resigned, but filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission claiming that he was not given “reasonable accommodation” to do his job per the Americans with Disabilities Act — even though he denies being color blind. He also filed suit against the NYCTA claiming discrimination on the basis of the “disability” he denied having.

When the court threw out the suit, Shannon appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals. The appeals court agreed with NYCTA policy — and U.S. Department of Transportation rules for commercial drivers — that a bus driver being able to properly distinguish the color of traffic lights is an “essential function” of a his job, and that a “reasonable accommodation can never involve the elimination of an essential function of a job.”

The court also ruled that the lower court’s finding that Shannon could not distinguish the different colors of traffic lights was reasonable, considering the testimony of several different doctors, and upheld the dismissal of Shannon’s case — to the considerable relief of every pedestrian, driver and bus passenger in the city.

Source

  • Decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second District, Docket 02-7266, 13 June 2003

Case Status

Dismissed, as noted.

My 2021 Thoughts on the Case

It’s amazing that he appealed, since this is such a clear losing argument. And to press an ADA complaint (over “a ‘disability’ he denied having”!) is truly over the top.

Letters

The classic Act of God case:

Russell in Texas: “I wonder if [the plaintiff’s lawyer] Mr. Ebner has a weather report posted near his office door so those exiting his office will know to expect potential lightning strikes in his parking lot.”

Ted in Pennsylvania: “Randy, PLEASE tell me this moron Shawn Perkins and his lawyer didn’t get any money out of that lawsuit. I have read previous situations in your newsletter that have been amusing and absurd, but this has to be a sign of the Apocalypse. Who among us hasn’t been caught in the rain at an amusement park? If King’s Island is supposed to be responsible to let people know it might rain, where is Perkins’ responsibility to look up in the sky if he can’t afford to look at the Weather Channel himself? I live in trial lawyer central, here in Pennsylvania, but this is beneath anything we see here. The simple fact he was in Ohio in June should have been a tip-off that lightning was a possibility. Please keep us posted on the outcome of this debacle, so we can send money to help Kings’ Island defend themselves.”

The legal system is nothing if not slow, but if I hear of an outcome in this case, you can be sure I’ll report on it.

Stan in Oklahoma: “The very idea that the park should warn you of every single danger is absolutely absurd. ‘Warning Please do not stare into the sun as this may cause blindness!’ Do we really need that sort of thing? It would take all day to read a list of warnings for all the things that could happen to you in the park or in the parking lot. What’s next? Are homebuilders required to generate a list of all possible dangers to you from a home they build? Does the power company have to post all the warnings next to all power outlets? Must the water company write up a list and etch it on your toilet? I’m afraid that if I were ever sitting on a jury like that, I wouldn’t be able to contain my laughter when the charges were read.”

Jerry, a writer in Washington: “Kings Island has taken reasonable steps to protect patrons from lightning strikes: they have erected an enormous lightning rod in the middle of the park, cleverly disguised as a one-third scale replica of the Eiffel Tower.” Bart, a Studio Assistant in Queensland, Australia: “The lawyer makes the claim that the weather was predictable. The instant and obvious counter to this claim is would he care to verify and confirm all forthcoming weather, and personally guarantee all outcomes regarding weather? What preposterous nonsense!”

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16 Comments on “060: Red Light / Green Light / Who Can I / Sue Tonight?

  1. I had different questions when reading the red/green light story.

    First… how did he pass just six weeks earlier when he first got the job? It is not likely he suddenly went color-blind as a result of the accident, so if he was not qualified to return to the job… how was he qualified to even get the job in the first place??

    Second, as far as I know, every stop light in the world is standard. If vertical, the red is on top and the green is on the bottom (with yellow between). If horizontal, the red is on the left for all countries that drive on the right side of the road (his license does not allow him to drive commercially in England, so the reversal there is not a problem).

    The purpose of this is specifically to allow color-blind people to drive, by using the position of the illuminated light. The color is a secondary reinforcement.

    Thus, is it really necessary for the driver to see red/green, when there are other indicators in every case?

    Hard to say; perhaps he cheated, or faked an exam. The bottom line, though, is federal law makes him ineligible for the job, and the state has to stay to those rules — it has no discretion. Thus it didn’t discriminate against him specifically, and the suit ends up as ridiculous. -rc

    Reply
    • As a red-green color-blind driver, I agree that the vast majority (but not all) of traffic lights are standardized. And I have successfully driven for 50 years without misreading a three-light signal. And, since the green light is actually blue-green to help poor souls like me, I haven’t confused red and green.

      I do however often have a problem at night when approaching a flashing traffic signal which is either red or yellow. Made worse when it is a permanent flashing light, so there is only one light, not three. I always slow down until I can see some other indication (a permanent flashing red will almost always also have a stop sign) or can see the position on a three-light fixture.

      As far as passing the license test, although I failed the color vision test for Navy ROTC miserably, I have never failed the exam at the DMV.

      I was hoping a RGCB reader would weigh in! I’ll hasten to add that there is a difference in commercial and passenger driver’s license requirements. As far as I know, there are no restrictions for driving passenger cars; the difference comes with commercial driving, where the stakes are much higher. -rc

      Reply
      • I had not thought about the flashing lights at night. You are certainly right that the position of which light is flashing is not obvious until very close to the light in that situation. Even then, I probably rely on the color (I am fortunately, not color blind) more than position in that situation.

        Reply
    • Burt, here in the US, in addition to a typical vertical traffic light, many intersections have a single arrow for turning. It may be red, yellow or green so there is no way Mr. Shannon would known whether or not it was appropriate to turn when he encountered such a light. There are also intersections with a single flashing red or yellow light and no other traffic signals where he would run into the same uncertainty.

      Reply
      • Another good point. I have seen those lights too, though was not thinking of them when I wrote my initial comment. Not being color-blind myself, such things just seem natural, and were not considered.

        Between your turn signal issue, and Dave’s mention of flashing lights at night, I do agree that being able to see colors is important for a commercial driver.

        Reply
    • I have to get eye exams with extreme regularity due to a chronic condition; not one ophthalmologist has EVER given me a colourblindness test; it’s just not a standard test to run.

      So, presumably, to qualify for the job, he needed the same qualifications to get a driver’s license: an eye exam certifying that he either had 20/20 or better vision, or the necessary corrective lenses.

      This is a pretty standard situation in a bureaucracy; only rarely do bureaucrats run their own due diligence. His employer assumed his eye doctor would flag it. His eye doctor assumed it would already be known if he was colourblind (and remember, he denies it himself.) And so on down the line.

      And generally this system of “good faith” works out fine and saves a lot of unnecessary work. Occasionally, not so much.

      The federal requirement, as noted in Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) Medical Examiner Handbook (p53), is, “Color vision must be sufficient to recognize traffic signals and devices showing the standard red, amber, and green traffic signal colors.” The doctor would have liability if he did not determine this during the exam. -rc

      Reply
      • When I went for my DL in Ecuador in 2013, I was initially failed and not allowed to drive. I appealed, and proved that the color-blind machine in that office was defective (I did that by taking the same test in 3 other offices, and passed each one). They eventually shut down that defective machine, and gave me my license.

        Of course, this being Ecuador, they didn’t bring in a working machine, or fix the defective machine. Instead, they just put a sign “nada functional” on the machine, and everyone who needed that test was simply marked as passed… 🙂

        The biggest surprise is they didn’t just keep using it! -rc

        Reply
    • As for your second comment: not true. My father was colorblind and did drive, and found the horizontal traffic lights tough to figure out quickly. Additionally, I live in China, and in Tianjin the traffic lights are a different design: a red bar that moves from 100% to about 30% to show the approximate time remaining, and then changes to a green bar that behaves the same. The red bar is on the left and the green on the right, but like the horizontal lights it is not immediately obvious which way is which, or even on a dark night where the off side is. (I have pictures of the Tianjin lights but apparently there is no way to attach photos in these comments)

      By the way, my father was also a radioman in the air force in World War II, where his inability to distinguish the colors of wires and flares caused some serious and embarrassing problems.

      Reply
      • As I said, the lights are all the same in the US. It is true they are different in other countries, but that is not at all relevant to a US Commercial Bus Driver license.

        I do know (only) one colorblind person who drives in the US. To my knowledge, he has no problem identifying if it is the left or the right light that is on for horizontal arrangement, once he is near the intersection. True, he might not tell from as far a distance on a straight-away as someone with color acuity, but that is not a problem that would be hard to adjust to (which is why you are still allowed to drive if colorblind in the US).

        Reply
  2. Another “color blind” limitation: Pilot’s licenses.

    I was with a friend at a small airport in California, some years ago, when I casually mentioned to him about the difference between bright fluorescent red and green colors on nearby planes. He was a bit startled to find he couldn’t tell the difference between them.

    BTW, he was a new police officer.

    It’s pretty important for a pilot: red is port (left), green is starboard (right), and the colored marker lights thus let others in the sky know which way a plane is flying. -rc

    Reply
    • I knew a guy in high school who had Achromatopsia, also known as total color blindness. His dream job as a young child was to be an Air Force pilot. By high school, he understood that he would never be allowed to do that, but still hoped to get a private pilot license. Unfortunately, I lost touch with him, and never learned it he accomplished that goal.

      Reply
    • For pilots telling port from starboard is not as important as being able to see landing instruction lights from a control tower when there is a problem with radio communication. Steady Red — Give way to other aircraft and continue circling or STOP. Flashing Red — don’t land, taxi clear of runway. Steady Green — clear to land or takeoff. Flashing green — return for landing or cleared to taxi. Alternating red and green — exercise extreme caution.

      Reply
    • Correct. I had a private pilot’s license in the 80’s. Part of the night flying training is to spot other aircraft and identify if they are flying towards you or away, which is done by telling which side the colors are on from your perspective.

      The difference is rather critical! I made an error (forgetting which was which) on my first night flight. My instructor (in the right seat) told me of the error, then told me to turn slightly and hold my course. Sure enough, that other plane headed right through the space I would have been in, had I not been corrected and changed course!

      Reply
  3. You mention port and starboard markers for pilots. Note that the tower, in cases of radio failure, they will direct traffic with a red or green spotlight directed at approaching aircraft. You wouldn’t want to mix those up.

    Indeed! -rc

    Reply
  4. So, why didn’t he sue the folks who gave him his first CDL( Commercial Drivers License)? If anyone was wrong, that is who it was.

    Although it is not relevant to the case, I am curious; was color blindness involved in the accident that led to this situation?

    Definitely a good question, but that wasn’t made clear in the court document. -rc

    Reply
  5. According to the standard color chart (which may still be in use, the last time I was tested was about 1980, in the US Military, and in 1971 by the Detroit Police Department), I am totally color blind. The standard chart is in booklet form with circles of colored dots, different colors within for a number. I even fail the sample chart (so I get a score of -15 for 14.) Problem is that I am NOT color blind as in the Army Signal Corps I had to rewire a radio repeater rig that had 192 different color coded wires, and never missed one. Where I have problems is with different shades of colors.

    I have only seen this in Smyrna, TN. They have traffic lights that the red light strobes while it is “on.” This makes it very easy to tell you are coming to a red light, especially at night. And that is extremely useful at night and/or in the rain, especially for older eyes (mine.) I have never seen this anywhere else in the US, but wish it would become common practice.

    Reply

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