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Cities Tampering With Traffic Lights To Generate Revenue 736

Techdirt is reporting that there has been a rash of reports indicating that red light cameras are being used to generate revenue rather than to promote safety. "Time and time again studies have shown that if cities really wanted to make traffic crossings safer there's a very simple way to do so: increase the length of the yellow light and make sure there's a pause before the cross traffic light turns green (this is done in some places, but not in many others). Tragically, it looks like some cities are doing the opposite! Jeff Nolan points out that six US cities have been caught decreasing the length of the yellow light below the legal limits in an effort to catch more drivers running red lights and [increase] revenue."
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Cities Tampering With Traffic Lights To Generate Revenue

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  • Grounds to contest? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by EllisDees ( 268037 ) on Friday April 11, 2008 @01:53PM (#23038576)
    Would these sneaky moves be grounds to contest the validity of all of the tickets given by traffic cameras in these cities?
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Skynet ( 37427 )
      Moreso than that, I think it would be grounds for a class action lawsuit.
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by ivan256 ( 17499 )
        Or an insurance industry lawsuit complaining about the increase in rear-end collisions due to unexpectedly short yellow lights resulting in drivers slamming on the brakes.
        • by morgan_greywolf ( 835522 ) * on Friday April 11, 2008 @02:17PM (#23038934) Homepage Journal
          Yep. That's one of things under consideration here in Florida. They want to install traffic cameras at more intersections, but a state law prohibits their use to pass out tickets because, currently, a cop must see you running the red.

          The insurance industry and several other groups are opposed to eliminating the state law because they think there will be more rear-end collisions resulting from traffic cameras, precisely because studies done in other cities with traffic cameras actually bear this out. People don't want a ticket, so they slam on their brakes to stop, short yellow or no. OTOH, the studies show that there would be fewer T-bone collisions, which are the most common types of accidents involving intersections and amongst the most lethal.

          So, they could always just use the fewer "T-bone" accidents as an excuse, and I think this is, in fact, what many cities have done in order to get the traffic cameras.

          Welcome to 1984, citizen. Big Brother is watching you.

          • by Pharmboy ( 216950 ) on Friday April 11, 2008 @02:43PM (#23039330) Journal
            They HAD them here in North Carolina, ran for about a year. Then someone brought up the fact that our State Constitution says that all traffic fines levied must go DIRECTLY to the schools, 100%. The camera companies were charging 50% royalty for each ticket given, and the counties were keeping the rest. Now there are a host of lawsuits out trying to force them both to give up 100% of the funds to the schools. The cameras are still here, but haven't been in operation for a couple of years.

            It's hard for the camera companies to make any money (and pay for the cameras) if you have to give 100% to someone else.
            • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

              by ahecht ( 567934 )
              Actually, they had to give 90%, and the school board is working out a deal to bring them back.

              See []
            • by brianerst ( 549609 ) on Friday April 11, 2008 @03:59PM (#23040308) Homepage

              It's hard for the camera companies to make any money (and pay for the cameras) if you have to give 100% to someone else.
              "All the time, our customers ask us, "How do you make money doing this?" The answer is simple: Volume. That's what we do."
            • by Yvan256 ( 722131 ) on Friday April 11, 2008 @03:59PM (#23040318) Homepage Journal

              It's hard for the camera companies to make any money (and pay for the cameras) if you have to give 100% to someone else.
              How about simply selling the cameras and the systems and not asking for royalty?

              Who authorized such a royalty in the first place? The money generated by laws (or the breaking of said laws) should go to the government, not companies.

              • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

                by Anonymous Coward
                Actually, the money should go to the companies that make LED lights that don't show up on the visible spectrum that you can put around your license plate so it can't be read by a camera. Technology exists so we don't have to be controlled by idiots. Fight the power!
            • by nguy ( 1207026 ) on Friday April 11, 2008 @04:55PM (#23041086)
              There is no reason in the world why a hardware provider should get any percentage of the revenue from traffic cameras. Traffic fines should never go to private companies, and they should never benefit any organization related to handing out traffic tickets, otherwise there is just too much potential for abuse.
          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by Arterion ( 941661 )
            I slam on my brakes now every time the light turns yellow. I got an automated ticket for sliding under the yellow in the rain.
          • by nehumanuscrede ( 624750 ) on Friday April 11, 2008 @03:27PM (#23039906)
            Houston is another city that is installing red
            light cameras just as fast as they can get them up.

            Police review the video footage of any
            vehicle that triggers the camera. If you're found
            to have committed the offense, the ticket is
            generated and mailed to you. They also send a link
            along to the video where you can watch yourself
            blow the light :)

            You normally won't see a ticket if the light
            was still yellow on entering the intersection.
            Most folks who are seeing the violations are
            blatantly blasting through the intersection
            after the light has gone red.

            So the way the system is set up currently, you
            can tell fairly quickly if the light is cycling
            faster than it should and if you truly deserved
            the citation.
        • by sm62704 ( 957197 ) on Friday April 11, 2008 @03:00PM (#23039566) Journal
          That doesn't make any sense to me, and I don't see how it would fly. If you hit someone in the rear, you're following too close!

          A friend of my ex-wife once complained about being ticketed when she was in an accident. The light turned yellow, the driver in front of her stopped, and she rear-ended the other driver. Evil-X's friend was livid that the other driver had the gall to stop for a yellow light!
          • by greed ( 112493 ) on Friday April 11, 2008 @03:16PM (#23039784)

            Yeah. Don't get behind me if you want to blow the red; I'm stopping for it--camera or no. And I'm not looking in my rear-view to see if I'm being tailgated. If you're following so close that I have to worry about it, tough, I'm not going to. I'm also going to brake to avoid skunks, large animals, children, vehicles pulling out of side streets and driveways, and other collision avoidance situations.

            I won't "slam on the brakes" for a yellow light, but I may use more of my car's braking abilities for a yellow than I would if I was farther away. Heck, I still think "yellow" is mainly so people who've been waiting can finally make their left turns....

            Anyone slamming on their brakes, with or without cameras around, isn't paying enough attention to traffic and the roadway, and is dangerous anyway.

            • by Dachannien ( 617929 ) on Friday April 11, 2008 @03:38PM (#23040034)

              Heck, I still think "yellow" is mainly so people who've been waiting can finally make their left turns....
              Around here, you usually can't make your left on yellow, because there are cars in the way. The answer is to pull out into the middle of the intersection and wait there. When the light turns red, staying put would be even worse than going, so you go. The fact that four more people behind you also go is their problem.
          • by IndustrialComplex ( 975015 ) on Friday April 11, 2008 @03:21PM (#23039828)
            It is a catch 22, with the way the streets and regulations are currently designed, it is impossible to follow all of the traffic laws, and still have a functional road.

            Did you ever see the video where a group of vehicles decided to drive 55 MPH maximum (I think it was in the DC beltway). The result was some absurd traffic backup for miles.

            If you combined a 55mph speed, with a following distance of every vehicle being able to stop if the car in front of them slammed on their brakes, the result would be that probably every highway on the Eastern seaboard would be gridlocked.

            For most driving situations, you won't encounter a person slamming on their brakes for a situation that you cannot see in front of them. That is why these cameras are so dangerous, you create yet another situation where someone will slam on their brakes, for a condition that the car behind them can't predict (usually you can also see if a pedestrian walks out). It adds one more danger to the roads when it would actually be safer for the driveway to go through the intersection when it is yellow (which is what they are supposed to do if it is too late to stop when the yellow turns on)
        • by Dahamma ( 304068 ) on Friday April 11, 2008 @03:48PM (#23040158)
          Or manslaughter charges to any city employee who knowingly manipulated a traffic light timing to unsafe values that resulted in a traffic death!
      • by Rei ( 128717 ) on Friday April 11, 2008 @02:40PM (#23039298) Homepage
        There's a really simple way to eliminate this conflict of interest. All traffic tickets of all kind don't go to the city or county. They go to the state. The state then distributes the money back to the cities/counties based on how heavily trafficked their roads are. How much money came from each isn't even factored in.

        Traffic safety laws should be about just that: traffic safety. They shouldn't be a backdoor tax. If we want optimal traffic safety solutions to be chosen, we have to eliminate the financial incentive for suboptimal ones.

  • Bastards (Score:5, Funny)

    by protolith ( 619345 ) on Friday April 11, 2008 @01:54PM (#23038590)
    I guess I will have to drive faster to make those yellow lights, You know, lights timed for 35 mph are also timed for 70 mph.
    • Re:Bastards (Score:5, Funny)

      by scubamage ( 727538 ) on Friday April 11, 2008 @01:57PM (#23038632)
      Your theories intrigue me, and I wish to subscribe to your newsletter!
      (ps: don't forget 105 mph, and 140 mph)
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by adonoman ( 624929 )
      Unfortunately it doesn't work like that - lights timed for 35 mph are timed for 17.5 mph and 7.75 mph. But unless you're getting a full light cycle between one light and the next, going 70 mph will get you there long before the light turns green.

      Not only that, but since you'd have to stop at each light, you'd be backing up traffic that was going the speed the lights are timed for.
  • No, then you just have the result where cars jump the light knowing that there is a pause.

    Doesn't this already happen in Boston?
  • Not news (Score:5, Interesting)

    by longacre ( 1090157 ) * on Friday April 11, 2008 @01:54PM (#23038604) Homepage
    Quite simply, if they were there for safety, cities would put warning signs up at intersections that have cameras, people would slow down, less people would run lights, and less accidents would occur. I have never seen a warning sign at such an intersection, so their financial motives are pretty clear.
    • In all the cities near me, there are yellow diamond signs with a picture of an old brownie camera in black in the middle on all approaches to intersections with cameras.

      The biggest solution to decreasing accidents at intersections is actually not to increase the amber light and provide more delay before the cross street's green -- the biggest solution is to decrease the number of light cycles per day. The fewer cycles, the fewer accidents per day, even if the same number of accidents occur per cycle.

      The trick is to measure the volume of through traffic on both streets per hour on weekdays and weekends and adjust the light timings accordingly, finding the "sweet spot" between causing congestion due to long waits and causing accidents due to short waits.

      The long amber and green light delays are only an aid that can help tweak the system once these other factors are accounted for.

      Of course, in many cities, the amber light is referred to by drivers as the "go faster" light -- having a long amber actually promotes speeding through intersections in such cities, and results in more pedestrian injuries and deaths.
      • by plague3106 ( 71849 ) on Friday April 11, 2008 @02:27PM (#23039104)
        Your idea is interesting, but do you actually have studies to back it up? At [], they have links to studies that lenghthing yellow light time is sufficent to lower accident rates.
      • by Technician ( 215283 ) on Friday April 11, 2008 @03:49PM (#23040166)
        When I was in Okinawa many years ago, I got a local drivers license. Learning their traffic customs was a real eye opener. The first thing I learned is that driving is not a right, but a privilege. The second thing I learned is there are no amateurs. Everyone is a professional driver and professional courtesy is required. As professionals and trained in moving traffic, they treated light a lot diffrently. The hardest thing to get used to was the courtesy at Right Turns (left turns for the US). If you waited for a light, the green meant go to everyone already in line. The greens were very short. On green the turn lane started and the light turned yellow and red right away and the other direction turned green. The turn lane continued to run the red while the green cross traffic professionally waited for the intersection to clear. It is illegal in Japan to proceed into an intersection unless it is safe to do so. This means wait for the turn lane to clear before entering the intersection. If you enter on a green light and hit someone making the turn, it's your fault for entering while unsafe to do so. The was normal, worked and prevented the overflow of traffic trying to get into a turn land from grid locking the straight traffic. There were few turning T-bone accidents. If you weren't in the turn line when it was green, you were expected to stop because the cross traffic was going to go as soon as the intersection was clear. Never try to catch up to a lane of turning traffic to squeeze on through because the gap will clear the intersection and the cross traffic will start.

        It was professional, courteous, and efficient. Why can't we do it? No long amber or green is required. Professional drivers make all the difference. I loved it. Returning to the states was very scary as the traffic would launch at a green light regardless if the intersection was clear!... Intersections are very dangerous here. It's not the lights. It's the professionalism. On another note.. If picked up for intoxicated driving, you got your first phone call after a 3 day dry out period. They have very little problems with repeat offenders.
    • Even assuming the obvious financial incentives aren't in play, actually increasing people's safety is more complicated than is being represented.

      Sure, increasing the length of the yellow light and the pause while all lights are red will unarguably reduce the number of accidents... TODAY. Humans are learning creatures, and in particular they use their learning abilities to engage in "risk homeostasis". They will tend to expose themselves to the same level of risk of running a red light (or more precisely,
  • As the quote goes... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Naughty Bob ( 1004174 ) * on Friday April 11, 2008 @01:55PM (#23038608)
    "In the 1980s capitalism triumphed over communism. In the 1990s it triumphed over democracy."
  • by museumpeace ( 735109 ) on Friday April 11, 2008 @01:55PM (#23038612) Journal
    between a bureaucrat's understanding of technology and a technologists understanding of technology.
  • Where I live, the yellow light blinks 4 times for the change between green to red. Seems a much better system.
  • ...and make sure there's a pause before the cross traffic light turns green...

    My impression is that this is a regional difference in the US: it's the norm in the East and a rarity in the West.

  • by Chibi ( 232518 ) on Friday April 11, 2008 @02:01PM (#23038698) Journal
    Article is pretty worthless. It contains more hyperlinks than a Slashdot story. Here are the six cities (which are not in the linked article, but a hyperlink), in case you're interested:
    1. Union City, CA
    2. Dallas, TX
    3. Lubbock, TX
    4. Nashville, TN
    5. Chattanooga, TN
    6. Springfield, MO
  • by DocJohn ( 81319 ) on Friday April 11, 2008 @02:02PM (#23038708) Homepage
    After jumping through two blogs (neither of which are the actual story), you'll come to -- the National Motorists Association -- and find the story, dated March 26, 2008 (3 weeks ago). Reading the story, you'll see they cite six different local newspaper articles, some dating back more than a year ago: []

    So while indeed this is interesting, it is not particularly "new" nor "news." Cities have been doing this for over a decade, and they occasionally get caught, but more often than not, they do not. They will continue to push for the cameras since they generate virtually "free" revenue (free in the sense of little manpower and little initial investment cost).

  • Doesn't surprise me (Score:4, Informative)

    by jimicus ( 737525 ) on Friday April 11, 2008 @02:02PM (#23038714)
    Here in the UK we've had cameras of some sort looking over traffic for years. Initially they were speed cameras; today there are also red light cameras.

    The entire system is set up to make money and it's as clear as day. When a speed camera is placed at the bottom of a steep hill or in the middle of a 2-mile straight, clear stretch of road (with a tree hiding it), it's pretty unrealistic to claim they're purely for safety reasons
  • by singularity ( 2031 ) * <> on Friday April 11, 2008 @02:05PM (#23038750) Homepage Journal
    A link to the original article []. Techdirt links to a Leftlanenews site that in turn links to the original article.

    The cities involved are Union City, CA, Dallas and Lubbock, TX, Nashville and Chattanooga, TN, Springfield, MO.

    As others have pointed out, if the government were truly interested in safety and not revenue, they would put up signs well ahead of the intersections. They would do the same with speed cameras - find where people are driving to fast for conditions (with accident data to back it up), put up a speed camera and then put up a sign .5 miles beforehand warning of the speed camera.

    Of course, if safety were actually a reasonable cause for speeding, we would have speed limits actually based around the 85th percentile and other statistically proven safe policies.

    Instead we have the police using tickets as a revenue source.

  • by PC and Sony Fanboy ( 1248258 ) on Friday April 11, 2008 @02:08PM (#23038794) Journal
    Yellow lights just tell me to go faster, or I'll hit the red. So when I see one, I speed up... and I usually make it through.
    Sometimes I don't make it before the red light, but thats okay - I havn't hit anyone yet!
  • by RobertB-DC ( 622190 ) * on Friday April 11, 2008 @02:10PM (#23038832) Homepage Journal
    Dallas recently installed red-light cameras. I'll testify that red-light runners were a major problem here, but I didn't support the cameras because of the potential for abuse. There was concern at City Hall, too, especially from the city's most with-it councilperson, Angela Hunt [].

    To the surprise of just about everyone, the cameras worked! People actually started slowing down in time to stop if the light turned yellow. The city became safer.

    But there was an inevitable downside... the cameras' revenue no longer supported their operating cost.

    Once again, the unexpected happened. Dallas did NOT tweak yellow light timing to generate more tickets. Instead, they turned off some of the cameras. Apparently, the contract with the third-party camera operator has a clause that reduces the monthly charge from $3,800 per camera to "a fraction" of that cost (blame the Morning News for failing to tell whether that fraction is 1/10 or 9/10). So they're turning some of them off, noting that "most motorists won't realize this and behave as if the cameras are operational."

    Which is what we wanted all along.

    The city of Dallas is mired in several messes of its own making, resulting in high-profile FBI probes and even a suicide pact [] between two of its best-known (and most-troubled) behind-the-scenes power brokers. But in this case, the city comes shining through. And the Rangers won a double-header last night, too. Wonders never cease.

    More info available from the Dallas Morning News [] article.

    More info NOT available from "", a self-described "journal of the politics of driving" that never hesitates to pass on a story of red light camera *abuse* []. I sent a link to the DMN story, but it never showed up. Agenda much?
  • by thriftyjd ( 1271542 ) on Friday April 11, 2008 @02:36PM (#23039238)
    ...the timing of the Yellow and All-Red intervals are pretty straightforward. The Yellow should be 3-6 seconds long, and is based upon the approach speeds (the higher the speed, the longer the Yellow). The purpose of the Yellow is warn traffic of an impending change in Right-of-Way assignment. On a typical urban roadway with speeds of 30 mph, the Yellow should be 3 seconds long.

    The All-Red interval should also be 3-6 seconds long, and should be based upon the geometry and size of the intersection, as well as the approach speeds. The purpose of the All-Red interval is to ensure that the intersection is clear of crossing traffic prior to assigning the Right-of-Way to a side street or pedestrian crossing. To determine the appropriate length of an All-Red interval, you need measure the distance from the stop line to the far side of the intersection (typically past the far crosswalk) and determine the approach speed. 30 m.p.h. = 44 ft/sec, so if the distance from the stop line to the far crosswalk is 88 feet, the appropriate All-Red interval would be 2 seconds. To be conservative, you can also add the length of a typical vehicle (~25 ft.) into the equation.

    With that knowledge in hand, you may be able to fight a red light-running ticket if you believe the timing provided for you was too short. Those are the general guidelines across the US. Individual states, counties, and cities may have different criteria, though.
  • by joe_n_bloe ( 244407 ) on Friday April 11, 2008 @02:37PM (#23039256) Homepage
    According to an article in the Washington Post [], not only have red light cameras failed to reduce the number of accidents at intersections where they were installed, but in many cases the number of traffic accidents in those accidents actually increased dramatically.

    The analysis shows that the number of crashes at locations with cameras more than doubled, from 365 collisions in 1998 to 755 last year. Injury and fatal crashes climbed 81 percent, from 144 such wrecks to 262. Broadside crashes, also known as right-angle or T-bone collisions, rose 30 percent, from 81 to 106 during that time frame. Traffic specialists say broadside collisions are especially dangerous because the sides are the most vulnerable areas of cars.

    The city of Baltimore has been under constant scrutiny for red light camera policies that appear to be unsafe and/or in financial conflict with the public interest. In the report mentioned here [], Administrative Judge Keith "One T" Mathews wrote the following summary:

    Red light cameras can work to protect the public. Unfortunately, the Baltimore City Red Light Camera Enforcement System (RLCES), as it is presently operated, can be seen as a revenue-producing measure instead of safety-oriented when examined against the following:

    1. Contract between Baltimore City and Affiliated Computer Services, Inc. (ACS)
    2. Contingency vs. Flat-fee Arrangement
    3. Unclear Standards for Yellow Light Settings
    4. Inconsistent and Short Yellow Light Times
    5. Lack of Delay Times/Grace Period
    6. Decreased Minimum Threshold Speed Limits
    7. Lack of Clear Objectives and Measurement Data (especially accident data)

                          These concerns greatly reduce the credibility of the RLCES and the City governing its operability. Therefore, each of these concerns should be addressed in a timely manner to ensure citizen confidence in the use of the RLCES, the City, the police department, and the judicial body that enforces the citations.[2]

    The one thing that red light cameras have always consistently accomplished, however, is revenue generation on a large scale.

  • Crap, Crap, Crap (Score:4, Insightful)

    by fm6 ( 162816 ) on Friday April 11, 2008 @02:37PM (#23039266) Homepage Journal
    No, I have not RTFA. Anything that begins with the standard "they must want the revenue" rationalization is self-deluding crap.

    I used to work in Santa Clara, CA, on a street where the drivers where demonstrably crazy. It had 2 lanes plus a center left turn lane. The 35 MPH posted limit was eminently reasonable. Yet people routinely drove much faster, even using the center lane as a passing lane. Worst of all, it was a short street, so that speeding cut a few seconds at most off your commute.

    One day, I narrowly escaped a headon collision with a particularly stupid speeder-weaver. I pried my fingers off the steering wheel, went to my office, and wrote a letter to the local police chief detailing conditions on this road, and suggesting a few minor improvements in enforcement.

    I didn't get a few minor improvements — I got a major crackdown. I guess that letter was even scarier than I realized. A lot of my co-workers got ticketed. Did any of them admit to being bad drivers. No of course not. They were all perfect drivers. They all agreed that Santa Clara must need the extra revenue.

    Face it, bozos. None of you is as good a driver as you think you are. If you think yellow lights are two short, don't fucking race them.
    • by Guido von Guido ( 548827 ) on Friday April 11, 2008 @03:08PM (#23039698)
      I hate to break it to you, but the two things are not mutually incompatible. Yes, most of us are worse drivers than we think (and certainly don't think I'm an exception). But at the same time some towns clearly do use traffic enforcement as a revenue generator.

      For intance, the village of New Rome [] is a classic case of a speed trap. At one point, the village of 60 had 14 part-time police officers and was grossing $400,000 annually from traffic stops.

      Obviously that's an extreme example. At the same time, don't be daft. Anything that can generate revenue can be abused.

  • by Spazntwich ( 208070 ) on Friday April 11, 2008 @03:00PM (#23039574)
    and I am not surprised in the least to see Chattanooga on this list. I've been seeing yellow light times decrease (especially at the red light intersections) for as long as I can remember, and I've been seeing more and more near misses and bullshit tickets given out as drivers who have no safe choice but to continue through a yellow light get bitten by the flash of the camera.

    As for myself, I just risk the rear-ender and tend to slam on my brakes when I see camera lights go yellow. Those $50 tickets can add up.
  • Legal yellow times (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Thelasko ( 1196535 ) on Friday April 11, 2008 @03:01PM (#23039590) Journal
    According to this site [] the legal yellow light times in the state of California are:
    Posted Speed or Prima Facie Speed Minimum Yellow Interval
    25 40 3.0
    30 48 3.2
    35 56 3.6
    40 64 3.9
    45 72 4.3
    50 80 4.7
    55 89 5.0
    60 97 5.4
    65 105 5.8
    Sorry, the lameness filter prevents this from being easily read.

Logic is the chastity belt of the mind!