This article was published in the Athens Banner-Herald on Sunday, August 12, 2001.
We’ve all seen them — drivers speeding through intersections clearly after the light has turned red. It’s angering and frustrating, not to mention dangerous. It seems as if the problem has gotten worse over the years, and the plain truth is that it has gotten worse, but probably not for the reasons you suspect.
House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) recently called for congressional hearings in the wake of a report that claims local governments have progressively shortened yellow-lights since 1985 to maximize fines, and have endangered motorists in the process. The study, released in a 23-page report by Armey’s office to The Washington Times, shows that since 1985, yellow traffic light timing has been cut from an average of five seconds to three seconds in duration and that revenue collected from intersections with these shorter durations have become a mainstay of many local governments. The report states, ”When people come upon an intersection with inadequate yellow time, they are faced with the choice of either stopping abruptly on yellow (risking a rear end accident) or accelerating. The options for those confronting such circumstances are limited, and unsafe. But each time a driver faces the dilemma, the government increases its odds of cashing in.”
And cashing in they are. In Washington, D.C. a single camera raked in $1 million in revenue from an estimated $16 million for the city’s 37 red-light cameras. In San Diego, a single camera brought in $6.8 million in a mere 18 months. Baltimore County, Maryland has taken in $6 million since January of this year. With each camera costing $50,000 (not to mention maintenance and program costs), it is no wonder that cities are looking to recoup their investments.
Intersections became more of a challenge for drivers in 1985, when the Institute of Traffic Engineers (ITE) changed its Proposed Recommended Practice for signal calculations, just three years after New York City began to research how it would utilize red light cameras. As the cameras became more prevalent, the ITE continued to change its Proposed Recommended Practice to shorten yellow light durations. The ITE’s 1994 report states, ”When the percentage of vehicles that entered on a red indication exceeds that which is locally acceptable, the yellow change interval may be lengthened (or shortened) until the percentage conforms to local standards, or enforcement can be used instead.”
Simply stated, if too many people are running red lights, the city does not have to look into problems with the intersection or signal timing, it can just ”use enforcement” by putting up a red-light camera. Engineers from across the country that disagree with the ITE’s calculations have found that at many of the red-light camera intersections, it is impossible to stop a vehicle safely within the posted speed limit with the three-second yellow-light duration. This results in increased rear-end collisions and higher amounts of red-light violations. Hardly the “safety measure” that cities say they are trying to implement.
Reports released by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) have touted red-light cameras as a highly effective safety tool, but the facts don’t add up. The IIHS has a vested interest in the success of red-light camera programs. In most states that use the programs, “violators” also have points added to their driver’s licenses, resulting in higher insurance rates — a clear bonus for an organization that represents the insurance industry. The IIHS methodology and its “studies” are suspect in that they are for short durations of time, fail to use actual accident reports and don’t consider the timing of the signal and other factors that influence traffic flow. In addition, the IIHS studies rarely mention the increase of rear-end collisions that are caused at red-light camera intersections.
The answer to the “rash” of red-light violations is relatively simple. Increase yellow light duration. Almost 80 percent of red light entries occur within the first second of the red light indication. Studies in Arizona, Georgia, Virginia, and Maryland have shown a reduction of 73 percent to nearly 100 percent in red light entries after an increase in yellow light duration. Several cities have dropped their red-light camera programs after adding only one second to yellow light durations at intersections because infractions were “virtually eliminated.”
Armey’s complete report, “The Red Light Running Crisis — Is It Intentional?”, can be found at www.freedom.gov/auto. As the Athens-Clarke County Commission considers the installation of red-light cameras in our community, the report might shed some light on some of the problems with these controversial monitoring devices.
This was written by Holly Preston, a University of Georgia graduate and a resident of Athens. She is Public Relations Coordinator at the Georgia Center for Continuing Education and is a member of the Clarke County Democratic Committee.