We thought maybe when we mentioned the sorry state of traffic lights in this city some days ago, a crew might sneak out and fiddle with a few bulbs and switches here and there for safety's sake if nothing else. But the only visible response so far has been a letter to the editor from the director of the department of public works citing the difficulty in getting spare parts for the old system until the new one is installed completely -- five years from now. In the meantime, says the director, the city government will do its best to repair signals as quickly as possible. We would be comforted if we had not gone out earlier this week to recheck those same traffic lights that were jammed when we first looked. You guessed it: they were still stuck, and, worse, we noticed even more lights in permanent solid colors -- one an endless red, another always green.

With the arrival of earlier darkness and foul weather, the effect is unusually dangerous at evening rush hour, as the drivers who have seen red for too long begin barreling into the intersections. Just how long is everyone supposed to idle patiently while the city scrounges around for spare parts? If those lights can't be fixed for days and weeks, Mayor Barry has a genuine emergency on his hands, and he had better get some people out there directing traffic.

The city administration shouldn't have to be reminded of the awful, obvious fact: somebody could get killed at one of the intersections. And if the department of public works is incapable of reacting before this happens, it's a case for the police.