By on December 14, 2009


The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) last month issued an official ruling that found red light camera “violation lines” illegal. A number of jurisdictions across the country paint four-inch wide white lines on the pavement at what is known as the “prolongation” of the cross street’s curb line in order to facilitate the use of automated ticketing machines. These are not the “stop bar” or crosswalk lines that most motorists expect, but a third set of lines that appear at the very edge of the intersection.

When Arizona motorist Dianne Patterson asked FHWA whether the city of Tucson violated the law by using violation lines, FHWA’s Acting Director of Transportation Operations, Paul Pisano, said it did.

“The Manual on Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) does not contain any provisions for the use of transverse lines to indicate the legal limits of an intersection for red light violation purposes,” Pisano wrote. “The reason is that, under the provisions of the Uniform Vehicle Code, which is the basis of the motor vehicle laws of most states, the stop line, or crosswalk if there is no stop line, defines the point beyond which a red light violation has occurred.”

Federal law regulates the use of traffic signs and markings on all roads to ensure consistency in the driving experience from one end of the country to the other. Signs and markings must adhere to standards set by the MUTCD governing size, color, placement and even the choice of font. FHWA found that unapproved markings could create a safety hazard, especially the use of the word “WAIT” before the violation line at Oracle Road and River Road (see red light camera ticket photo, and overhead diagram with the violation line highlighted in red).

“It is unlikely that drivers from other states who encounter these markings in Arizona would understand their meaning or intent,” Pisano wrote. “The word marking ‘WAIT,’ although technically not disallowed by the MUTCD, is of particular concern because it is visible to drivers at all times even though it does not apply at all times. When the signal is displaying circular green or green arrow indications, the ‘WAIT’ message could be confusing and could provoke unfamiliar drivers to stop unexpectedly at the violation line.”

Chad Dornsife, Executive Director of the Best Highway Safety Practices Institute told TheNewspaper that use of the violation line was an intentionally deceptive practice.

“The second white line is an enforcement trap,” Dornsife said. “It’s the worst kind of trap because those that hesitate to make sure it is safe will get a citation, and the set back is back so far that even if you have a clear path you cannot clear the intersection in time.”

At the Oracle location, for example, the violation line appears forty-three feet after the stop bar. This means a driver who clears the crosswalk on yellow would still get a ticket if he did not clear the violation line before the light turned red. At 40 MPH, the practice has the same effect on violations as shortening the yellow light by 1.3 seconds.

FHWA officials emphasized that safety was their primary concern in issuing the ruling. The agency is open to modifying its regulations, but only after strict procedures have been followed to ensure the changes do not undermine safe driving practices.

“Jurisdictions wishing to use such non-compliant markings or devices are required by Section 1A.10 of the MUTCD to request and receive approval from the Federal Highway Administration for experimentation,” Pisano wrote. “Such experimentation would necessarily include data collection and study to evaluate road users’ understanding of the markings, the effectiveness of such markings in reducing violations, and whether such markings create other safety issues.”

Arizona is far from alone in using illicit pavement markings in photo enforcement programs. In 2007, Garland, Texas was found to have used violation lines contrary to the definitions found in state law.

View a copy of the FHWA ruling in a 90k PDF file at the source link below.

Source: PDF File 3-232(i) Markings for Red Light Violations (US Federal Highway Administration, 11/17/2009)


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11 Comments on “Federal Agency Rules Traffic Camera Enforcement Lines Illegal...”

  • avatar

    So now, I’m going to take the reciepts I have from when I got caught running red lights (all three of em and I’M GOING TO DEMAND MY MONEY BACK FROM THE STATE.

    • 0 avatar
      Brian E

      You seem to be incorrectly assuming that it’s your money. It’s not. It’s the state’s; they just let you carry it around for a while. So there’s no way they will accept the idea that you are owed anything back for this.

  • avatar

    This sounds like it’s some huge fraudulent thing happening with all red light cameras, given the breathlessnes of this article’s appearance, title, picture, and so forth.

    But upon reading and deeper analysis, it becomes apparent that the specific issue at hand is not correctly reflected by the accompanying picture.  It’s a completely different issue (invisible lines before the crosswalk as in the pic vs. visible lines way the hell out in the middle of the intersection).  And it may be a local one only.

    Uhhh, this article made me work too hard to get things into context.  I’m not used to having to do that here on TTAC, so now I have a headache…

    • 0 avatar

      At the intersection in question (Oracle and River) the “lines before the crosswalk” (i.e. the stop bar) is present and clearly visible. I believe the question revolves around the fact that Arizona defines the “intersection” as beginning at the prolongation of the curb.  Federal traffic control standards (MUTC) define the intersection as beginning at the stop bar for purposes of red light violations. Ms Patterson passed the stop bar on yellow but did not clear the prolongation of the curb before the red. Since there are numerous legal rulings that establish the priority of Federal law over state and local laws, I believe that the city is in the wrong. (Note, however, that I am not a lawyer). I also suspect that there is probably a good class action law suit here somewhere, since these types of Federal rulings are not new and city and state officials could/should have known about them for some time. If you are looking for a reason why they may have ignored such federal rulings, just consider that, by some local estimates, the income from photo enforcement in Tucson amounts to millions of dollars per year in revenue.
      Ms Patterson’s testimony is currently under advisement by a judge and a ruling is pending in her case.

  • avatar

    I would agree with ZoomZoom, though, I did actually enjoy getting into the details about this, because the devil is in the details, so the more I know the better.  Though, yeah, that picture doesn’t exactly explain the issue in the article.

  • avatar

    So the question is, will they stop?

    Anybody want to take bets on whether they do?

  • avatar

    ZoomZoom, the photo on top of this article has nothing to do with the article. Use the inline pic.

    It’s more common than you think — see the article about Garland, Texas linked at the end.

    • 0 avatar

      Yes Richard, that was my point. 

      As you say, the inline (or “inset”) pics were more closely related to the contents of the article, yes…but again —>  the “eyecatcher” main article pic (the biggest one before the jump) should have been “somewhat” in context with the tenor, tone, context, and content of the article. It was not, and this was my gripe.

  • avatar

    “The reason is that, under the provisions of the Uniform Vehicle Code, which is the basis of the motor vehicle laws of most states, the stop line, or crosswalk if there is no stop line, defines the point beyond which a red light violation has occurred.”

    Arizona is NOT one of these “most states”.  If they remove the “illegal” lines the point of violation will still remain the same unless they change the law, which they should do. I have received a ticket myself due to the stop line being 40+ feet prior to entering the intersection. Lame. 

  • avatar

    I know one state I’m never visiting now.

  • avatar

    *dons some asbestos underwear*
    As someone who nearly gets rear-ended for stopping at crosswalks and “No Turn On Red” lanes . . . I both fear and look forward to a proper implementation of this.
    If (from the beginning) this hadn’t been used as one big money-grab, safety could have been improved and traffic flow changed for the positive, but it hasn’t.
    1) What’s wrong with using existing stop-bars for crying out loud?
    2) Yellow-lights (clearly, to a rational person) should be a fixed length, based on the speed zone you are in
    3) Safety classes (like a 5 hour course) in lieu of fines make more sense
    “Safety” rules and reason seem to have departed one another.

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