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Red Light Cameras Vulnerable to Abuse by Cities, Municipalities and Law Enforcement for Unnecessary and Excessive Tickets and Citations

20130722mo-red-light-camera-wikipedia-imageIntroduction. Properly implemented and programmed, Red Light Cameras could help catch and prosecute dangerous and careless drivers who drive through red lights as a result of being distracted, drunk, or not wanting to be delayed by waiting.

However, cities, municipalities, and law enforcement agencies are intentionally programming red light cameras to increase violations and maximize revenue. As a result, traffic citations are issued for drivers who were not driving unsafe, but simply approached an intersection thinking the yellow light duration would provide sufficient time to cross the intersection.

Video EvidenceIn the sample below of a red light camera video recording, we see that the engineers who programmed the traffic light used the bare minimum of 3 seconds duration for the yellow light. This results in a driver being given a false sense of security as they choose to drive through a yellow light only to discover the light turns quickly to red as they are a few feet from the intersection (too late to stop). The video below was provided as incriminating evidence of a traffic violation for the citation of a driver. Yet, instead it incriminates those who programmed the red light camera system and light timing at this intersection.

Greater Danger. This practice of shortening yellow light durations results in greater revenue for cities, but more dangerous intersections. So, municipalities choose to put motorists at risk so they can make more money.

One report on roadway danger analyzed the correlation between Red Light Cameras and the timing of signals at intersections by looking at traffic accident outcomes:

In plainer English: increase the time of a yellow light, reduce the number of accidents. A one-second increase in the yellow light time duration resulted in a 40-percent reduction in crashes and a 53% drop in violations.

Never mind the fact that many red light cameras are not installed at the intersections with the highest accident rates. And never mind the fact that while cameras are said to capture up to 90% of their violations in the first second of a light going red, the large majority of accidents due to people running red lights happens five seconds after a light has turned red.

What makes it easy to ignore that fact is the huge amounts of money involved. In Coppell, one of those Texas towns studied, one red light camera issued $862,275 in tickets during a 1-year span. That’s a healthy addition to the coffers in a town of just 39,000 people. Other, larger cities are known to reap millions from red light camera revenue. [Source: AOL Auto]

Intersections with Red Light Cameras are often programmed to have the yellow light duration reduce to maximize violations. This increases danger.

Appropriately programmed traffic signals will provide sufficient time for the motorist to stop (if they are far away from an intersection) or continue (if they are close to an intersection) when the light changes to yellow.

The timing cycle of each light color is determined by traffic engineers, usually using formulas that are already in existence for any given scenario. The duration of each light color varies based on location, time of day, speed limit, etc. Essentially, the above times are correct: 3-10 seconds. It should be noted that a yellow light can be 3-seconds at one time of day, and that same yellow light may be 7-seconds at another time of day. [Source: Answers.Yahoo.com]

Because yellow light duration varies, it’s virtually impossible for a motorist to know for a certainty how much time they have to cross an intersection. However, experienced motorists can generally sense whether they should stop abruptly, or continue through an intersection.

As stated above, 90% of Red Light Camera violations happen in the first second of a light going red – for those drivers who perceive they are about to go through a yellow light and pose no danger because the light for opposing traffic has not turned green.

The 10% of violations that happen after the first second of the light turning red – those who intentionally drive through a red light – are the only ones that should be enforced.

Yet, some municipalities don’t care about integrity and safety as much as they care about revenue.

Science of Traffic Light Programming. It’s clear that municipalities are putting citizens at danger and placing profits over people. If there were only an authoritative source providing guidelines for programming traffic signals…. Well, in fact, there is. The Federal government has clearly stated guidelines for programming the traffic lights at intersections. They even provide a formula:

Federal Highway Administration Formula for Traffic Signal Timing

According to the Federal Highway Administration, adjusting traffic signals to anticipate driver expectations is a best practice. The formula above is based on the speed limit, width of intersection, and delay time for the driver to react when the light turns from green to yellow (as well as other factors).

“A properly timed yellow interval is essential to reduce signal violations. An improperly timed yellow interval may cause vehicles to violate the signal. If the yellow interval is not long enough for the conditions at the intersection, the motorist may violate the signal. Motorists have some expectancy of what the yellow interval should be and base their decisions to proceed or stop based on their past experiences. In order to reduce signal violations, the engineer should ensure that the yellow interval is adequate for the conditions at the intersection and the expectations of the motorists.” [Source: Federal Highway Administration]

Summary. When traffic lights are properly programmed, there would be very few violations and indeed very few accidents. Yellow lights should have a duration sufficient for those approaching to either stop or continue through the intersection before the light turns red. When a light turns red. The opposing light should not immediately turn green. Instead, there should be a slight delay allowing for any remaining traffic (turning cars for example) to exit the intersection.

Learn More. For further reading, see “Making Intersections Safer: A Toolbox of Engineering Countermeasures to Reduce Red-Light Running” by the Federal Highway Administration.

Videos. The following video (from ViolationInfo.com) is offered as promotional propaganda used in defense of red light camera use. The auto accident footage used in the video depicts drivers who appear to be going over the speed limit, and not just driving into a red light, but driving into a vehicle without stopping. They are apparently completely oblivious to their surroundings. Unfortunately, red light cameras are targeting more cautious drivers and not the worst offenders. The video states that officers will dismiss a violation where it seems the driver intended to just go through a yellow light. In fact, 90% of tickets issued are for those who had a light change red in a second or less before entering the intersection and not an existing red light.

By Greg Johnson

Greg Johnson is a freelance writer and tech consultant in Iowa City. He is also the founder and Director of the ResourcesForLife.com website. Learn more at AboutGregJohnson.com