Civil Liberties

Cities Shortening Yellow Traffic Lights for Deadly Profit

Some cities have been shortening yellow lights to nab drivers with a ticket. But studies show that they're raking in the bucks at the expense of public safety.

Reeling through a 21st century addicted to technology and surveillance, citizens may be too overwhelmed to complain of increasing cameras popping up atop red lights at intersections across the nation, most of which are designed to catch them breaking traffic laws. That is, until they're caught in those intersections as the yellow lights unexpectedly change, and cars in front and back of them hit the brakes or punch the gas to avoid tickets. And when they find out those cameras and lights are being gamed, sometimes lethally, in the pursuit of quick profit? Then they get mad, and maybe even, for being used as motorized money pits. 

"With all of the stories we hear on a daily basis, there is little doubt that the desire for ticket revenue trumps safety concerns," Gary Biller, executive director of the National Motorists Association told AlterNet. "A quick current example is California's governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who a few weeks ago proposed state budget including a proposal to add speed sensors to 500 existing red-light cameras. The reason? Safety wasn't mentioned, but an expected additional annual revenue of $338 million was." 

Roughly multiply that revenue by 50 states, and you quickly get an idea why red-light cameras designed by companies like Arizona's Redlfex Group and American Traffic Solutions (ATS) are an increasingly attractive crutch for America's cash-strapped cities. But they're unsafe short-cuts, because they haven't necessarily proven very effective at anything other than generating ticket revenue -- and accidents, lots of accidents. In fact, studies have repeatedly shown that red-light cameras can cause more accidents, not less.

They're not particularly good at generating legitimate tickets either: Illegal camera set-ups at intersections in Seattle are issuing invalid citations, around 80 percent of red-light violations in Los Angeles are comparatively safe rolling right turns, and so on. Meanwhile, 15 states have elected to prohibit red-light cameras, and more are surely to come as motorists learn that some American cities have been shortening yellow lights for deadly profit, as countries like Italy quickly follow suit.  

"While several cities have been caught shortening yellow lights to increase revenue from red-light tickets," said Biller, "I think the larger issue today is that the duration of so many yellow lights has never been adequately set for optimal safety results. An increase of approximately one second can reduce the frequency of red-light-running by at least 50 percent." 

The standard definition of a safe yellow light is arguably hard to nail down, depending on the intersection. The Federal Highway Administration's Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices specifies a wide-ranging duration of three to six seconds. But the application is more important than the theory, which is why it should be left to the scientists to decide which goes where, according to Justin McNaull, director of state relations for the American Automobile Association.   

"Yellow light intervals should be determined by engineers," he told AlterNet. "If yellow lights are too short, motorists can't stop in time. If they're too long, motorists will continue to accelerate when they shouldn't. To borrow from 'Goldilocks and the Three Bears,' yellow lights need to be just right." 

If they're not, the statistics get scary. Shortened yellow lights usually increase accidents by a significant percentage. In fact, in some cities they have caused more accidents than they have stopped. But they have also pulled down millions in fast, easy money, and that is often evidently worth the cost in human lives to politicians and industry heavyweights. 

"The camera does have a place in the traffic safety toolbox," said McNaull. "But it's not a cure-all. There's a temptation for local governments to see it as a revenue tool. And as a safety tool, but one that produces revenue." 

With profit as the red-light camera's primary motive, it's hard for an already disenfranchised citizenry to find friends in those money-hungry local governments. But it's not impossible: State Representative Christopher Hurst in Washington is sponsoring a bill to mandate a four-second duration for yellow lights and severely downsize violations to $25. Given the opportunity to decide on the need for such lucrative surveillance, citizens have always opted to just say no.  

"Red-light cameras have never survived a public up or down vote," said Biller. "The problem is that many photo enforcement programs have yet to be put on a public ballot." 

Until they are, dissenters are just going to have to hammer cities with the ugly details. From letting corporations like Redflex and ATS decide where the cameras are installed to shortening yellow lights and beyond, cities are gambling their citizens' lives in pursuit of money they might just have to give back anyway, in the form of lawsuits, illegal tickets and so on. And given the major cost of the serious collisions the red-light cameras are supposed to be stopping, the whole enterprise could turn out to be a high-tech exercise in cost-inefficient waste. 

"The cost of traffic accidents is huge," said McNaull. "A conservative figure is $200 billion a year, but it can go beyond half a trillion in the United States annually. Reducing crashes certainly does produce significant benefits."  

But increasing them produces the opposite: A massive destruction of taxpayer revenue in the pursuit of massive taxpayer revenue. Even if motorists could comprehend that labyrinthine headache, it's not like they don't have enough to worry about as it is.  With their safety so obviously on the back-burner, some might decide in defiance the law shouldn't apply to them. Especially when they're trying to do the right thing most of the time. 

"The vast majority of camera tickets for such violations is based on vehicles entering the intersection within 0.2 or 0.3 seconds after the signal turned from yellow to red," Biller explained. "These are technical violations by drivers trying to clear the intersections responsibly. The kind of red-light running that causes the serious broadside accidents touted by the camera companies are those where the vehicles enter the intersection three seconds or more after red." 

"It's not an issue that's black or white," McNaull said. "We're certainly operating within the gray area."

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Scott Thill runs the online mag Morphizm.com. His writing has appeared on Salon, XLR8R, All Music Guide, Wired and others.