By on January 9, 2009

As the city of Fairfax prepares next week to become the first in Virginia to resume the use of red light cameras, the history of a county intersection offers an important lesson regarding the area’s first experiment with photo ticketing. Of the thirteen intersections where red light cameras were used in Fairfax County, only the intersection Route 50/Lee-Jackson Highway and Fair Ridge Drive reported a significant accident reduction, according to figures provided in a 2007 report by the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) (see page 75). It is also a location where the length of the yellow signal was both shortened and lengthened, providing a rare glimpse into the real world effects of each change.

Back in 1998, Route 50 and Fair Ridge had a serious problem with collisions. About 74k vehicles passed through the busy intersection on a typical day, including a significant number of commercial vehicles. VDOT engineers met with representatives of the Fairfax County Fire Department on August 4 that year to come up with an action plan to improve safety at the location.

“They decided to take several steps to reduce the number of red light runners which they felt were a factor in the crash problem,” a VDOT official explained in a 2002 email obtained by TheNewspaper. “These actions included… increase the amber time following the Route 50 through movement to 5.5 seconds.”

The engineers updated the signage at the intersection and enhanced signal visibility. The 1.5 second increase in yellow duration was implemented on August 12, 1998. The accident situation improved significantly.

About a year later, on October 11, 1999, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors signed a contract with Lockheed Martin IMS (which now does business as Affiliated Computer Services) to issue photo tickets at ten county intersections with the expectation that the company would generate a total of $13m in citations over the duration of the three-year agreement. Just four days later, the yellow signal timing at Route 50 and Fair Ridge was shortened back to 4.0 seconds.

According to VDOT, the shortening was accidental, but it did prove useful in making the county’s red light camera program appear more effective. The shorter yellow helped the “before” data for the intersection show 362 crashes per year for every million vehicles passing through, placing it back once again among the worst in the county. When the red light camera was activated on February 9, 2001, violations were also high at 250 per month, generating a steady flow of revenue.

Six weeks later, on March 26, 2001, VDOT decided to increase the yellow timing from 4.0 back to 5.5 seconds. The impact was immediate and dramatic. Average monthly violations dropped from 250 to between 20 and 30 per month — a 90 percent decrease. The violation rate remained low until the Virginia legislature shut down red light camera programs statewide in 2005.

The number of accidents dropped to a rate of 290, reflecting a 20 percent decrease. Although VDOT’s 2007 report did find that Fairfax County red light camera intersections experienced a 23 percent increase in accidents overall, this figure would have appeared far worse had the Fair Ridge yellow signal not been increased.

Armed with this data, a new group, CameraFraud DC, has formed to challenge Fairfax City and other Virginia jurisdictions looking to install red light cameras once again (visit the group’s website). CameraFraud got its start in Arizona where members next week plan to unveil a petition drive aimed at gathering enough signatures to hold a referendum on ending photo ticketing throughout Arizona.

A copy of the red light camera datasheet for Route 50 and Fair Ridge from February 8, 2001 through April 30, 2001 is available in a 250k PDF file at the source link below.

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20 Comments on “The Truth About Shortening Yellow Lights at Red Light Camera Locations...”


  • avatar
    tced2

    I am concerned about any decision made about traffic enforcement that is based upon revenues. This puts the emphasis on the wrong thing. They’re called traffic laws not revenue enhancement. Traffic laws are there to ensure safety not raise revenue for government.

    I was not surprised with the conclusion about yellow light duration. What do the studies say about normal reaction time? All I ever see is traffic engineers normally use X seconds of yellow light time. What is the proper amount of reaction time?

  • avatar
    Tommy

    The fundamental problem, of course, is the use of fines/tickets as revenue. Until that mindset changes, whatever it is, red light cameras, speed cameras, road pricing, etc., will all be abused.

  • avatar
    tedward

    they should start a recall petition for the guilty politician every time a red light camera system is proposed. Dosen’t matter if it works, just start it every time. Language should specifically mention the potential death and disfigurement the politician is ok with creating if it increases revenue slightly.

  • avatar
    dh0llyw00d

    i completely disagree with the above arguments on revenue raising – with the provision that the revenue gets spent on the right things, eg road safety, works, etc.

    obviously if it is going back into the govt bucket to be spent on whatever it doesn’t make much sense.

  • avatar
    Richard Chen

    Thanks for the heads up, TN, I occasionally drive through that part of town.

  • avatar
    MBella

    Most traffic fines are for revenue. That’s why places lower speed limits 20mph in a one block location to so that they can pile on the tickets. Red light cameras have become the ultimate fleecing.

  • avatar
    BMW325I

    @ dh0llyw00d

    If politicians were telling the truth about all the tax from gas were to pay for the roads, we wouldnt need these devices.

  • avatar
    tedward

    TTAC does a good job as an industry watcher bulldog (even if I don’t agree with every take), calling specific PR and management folks out over their idiot decisions and bullshit justifications, so why not so much with politicians? Clearly the camera craze is a sore wound here, but there isn’t nearly the same type of castigation handed out to the relevant parties.

    Given how many Americans rely on the car industry (through investment holdings and jobs) and how eminently replacable and interchangable politicians are, I know which group I’m more comfortable skewering. And GM isn’t killing anyone.

    Not that I’m suggesting letting carmakers off the hook, but like I said, they’re not killing Americans, and both subjects deal directly with cars.

  • avatar
    chuckR

    The problem with red light cameras is that there is usually a built-in temptation to fiddle with yellow light duration. An experienced traffic engineer could probably come up with reasonable estimates of how many more red light violations would occur for a given shortening of the yellow. In the extreme, you could catch everybody, even alert 25 year-olds in cars with excellent brakes.

  • avatar
    porschespeed

    @chuckr,

    What do you mean could? They do fiddle with the yellows in order to maximize revenue.

    This is one of the many reasons that folks have issues with them.

  • avatar
    jconli1

    My comment is purely observational, but its something I pay attention to quite a bit, especially as a motorcyclist.

    When I lived in Baltimore (one of the first places to be notorious for yellow-shortening), yellow meant STOP, period. Everyone stopped, neat and orderly. Every now and then you’d get someone sailing through the light after it turned red, but that was rare.

    Now I live in Seattle, which has the longest yellows I’ve ever seen in my life, and it seems everyone just speeds up at the yellow. At most intersections regardless of time of day, I see two to four cars sail through the red, regularly. You sometimes have to wait 3-4 seconds at green before you begin to accelerate (count it out in your head right now, that’s a surprisingly long delay)

    I didn’t really notice the contrast until I was back in Maryland over the holidays. I used to think longer yellows were the key… but now I’m not so sure. Maybe just increasing the dead time when all lights are red is the only answer?

  • avatar
    creamy

    “I see two to four cars sail through the red, regularly. You sometimes have to wait 3-4 seconds at green before you begin to accelerate”

    ilove that. don’t wait, just accelerate. they’re the ones going through the red.

  • avatar
    Pch101

    The length of the yellow light should be based upon highway engineering standards that account for the flow and speed of traffic. There shouldn’t be any mystery about how to set them, and their lengths should be consistent with those standards.

    The fact that they feel free to deviate from those standards is the real problem. There should be no surprises here, driving should not be filled with regulatory enigmas that can change arbitrarily without warning. The system should be consistent enough that complying with it is easy for the average driver who wants to obey.

    If there is going to be gamesmanship with this, here’s a thought — require that the length of the yellow light, calculated to the 1/10th of a second, be clearly posted at every intersection. Require that the prosecution provide evidence that the length of the light matches the sign that has been posted.

  • avatar
    rpn453

    ilove that. don’t wait, just accelerate. they’re the ones going through the red.

    It’s good to have an old truck for that. You should see my buddy in his ’87 suburban, air horns blaring, charging at people who run the left turn lights. Fortunately, people around here don’t seem to regularly run reds in other situations.

  • avatar
    ellomdian

    @rmn453

    I miss my 87. God that thing was a tank. Was hit no less than 3 times before the transmission decided a warm day in May was as good a time as any to die.

  • avatar
    krhodes1

    It seems to me that one problem is that there is no way to know how long a yellow is going to be – it is wildly inconsistent from area to area. There should be some standard signal which means the light is going to turn SOON. For instance, have the yellow light blink when there is 2 seconds left. Somewhere that I can’t recall, (maybe New Brunswick? Somewhere in Europe?) the lights went from green to yellow, to red AND blinking yellow, to red. Then red AND blinking green to green. So you knew exactly what was about to happen. The blinking was a couple seconds, and was very consistent from intersection to intersection.

    In my area, yellow lights are generally pretty short, so most everyone stops when the light turns yellow. But I have been in places where the light is soo long that if you stopped as soon as it turned yellow, you would probably get rear-ended. I travel all over the country for work and find it quite annoying.

  • avatar
    porschespeed

    The length of the yellow light should be based upon highway engineering standards that account for the flow and speed of traffic. There shouldn’t be any mystery about how to set them, and their lengths should be consistent with those standards.

    Pch101,

    Are you suggesting we use science to determine traffic flows? How cutting edge. I bet we could even use the 85th percentile for speed limits…

    (mondo sarcasm mode off)

    I’m with you, really. We used to. It worked. But didn’t generate the necessary revenue. Back to ‘the children’…

  • avatar
    Lumbergh21

    PCH101 has presented the obvious answer to the question of how long a yellow light should stay lit. Using 90th percentile reaction times and stopping distances at the given speed on that road then add a safety factor of say 1 second. This would make too much sense, though.

  • avatar
    CarPerson

    Never in the history of planet Earth have so many had so much access to so much information….and refused to lift a finger to learn something.

    What THREE conditions must be met for “running a red light” to be a ticketable offence?

  • avatar
    rottenbob

    There is an intersection not far from my condo in Seattle (Broadway & E. Pine) that I drive through every day. One day last year I noticed that the yellow light seemed to be shorter in duration. I started paying attention to it regularly and I became certain that they had shortened the duration of the yellow light. Not long after that I learned that a red light camera had been installed at that intersection. It became obvious that they’d adjusted the yellow light to enhance revenue rather than safety.

    @krhodes1
    It seems to me that one problem is that there is no way to know how long a yellow is going to be – it is wildly inconsistent from area to area.

    Well, since everything is computerized these days, and many of these signals aren’t single lamps but circle-shaped boards dotted with hundreds of LEDs, why not configure the yellow light to display numerals that count down to zero.


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