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The Weekly Standard

The Yellow Menace
The police could make intersections safer with longer yellow lights. But the city wouldn't make any money that way. Part 2 in a series.
by Matt Labash
04/02/2002 12:00:00 AM

Matt Labash, senior writer

Part 2 in a 5 part series.

Part 1 Inside the District's Red Lights: Red-light cameras and photo radar are all over Washington--and coming to a city near you. The science behind them is bad and the police are using them to make money, not save lives. It's much worse than you thought.

OF ALL THE PEOPLE to curse for automated enforcement technology, the foremost is Maurice Gatsonides, a Dutch race car driver who invented the speed camera in the 1950s. Nicknamed "Gatso"-- the future name of the company that exported his technology around the world-Gatsonides engineered the camera to enhance his racing speed. Upon retiring however, he turned the technology on the rest of us, peddling his equipment to law enforcement agencies. By the time Gatsonides died in 1998, descending to the hottest part of Hell in the imaginations of many motorists, his technology had already taken hold in Europe.

The last several years, however, have seen an exponential boom in this country. The Department of Transportation estimates that red light cameras are now being used in 30 cities in 19 states (11 states have banned them). And although 75 countries use the more controversial photo radar, the United States reports approximately 17 such programs (7 out of 10 additional test programs were discontinued--often because of public ill-will). All of the current photo radar programs are being run west of the Mississippi, with the exception of D.C., whose example is encouraging East Coast police departments to eagerly consider it.

New York became the first city in this country to permanently operate red light cameras in 1993. Since then, the argument against them has been a fairly obvious one. Typically, some local columnist storms the barricades clutching his dog-eared Orwell or Huxley, screeching about an erosion of liberties, the government threatening our privacy, and on and on. To which one can almost feel readers stifling a collective yawn. Even if Americans should be concerned about the death-by-a-thousand-cuts privacy is suffering with spooky surveillance technologies like biometric face scanning, most long ago resigned themselves to being surveilled every time they gas their cars or buy Slim Jims at 7-Eleven. To some, automated enforcement technology is just a natural progression.

But recently the debate has shifted to address less abstract issues such as: Does the technology even work? Does it reduce accidents and safety risks, or cause more of its own? Are cities overstating a threat, overselling a technology, and undercutting more important safety countermeasures to gouge revenues out of their citizens? Rep. Dick Armey's answer to those questions was made abundantly clear in his recent report, titled--with jackhammer subtlety--"The Red Light Camera Scam."

Released last May, the report was met with ridicule by editorialists, many of whom suffer from the Armey Effect, dictating that if the relatively unpopular congressman is against something, they should be for it. What stretched the credulity of most critics was the implied assertion that cities were reducing their yellow-light intervals in order to entrap motorists with red light cameras--or "scameras," as detractors now call them. "You're full of it, sir," was one of the punditocracy's gentler admonitions.

But while critics were busy dismantling the most incendiary and least supportable charge in Armey's report, they missed a much more important point. Cities don't need to reduce yellow-light times to generate revenue, they merely have to plant cameras at intersections where short amber times foster red-light running. It's a more subtle assertion, but one that Armey's chief researcher, Richard Diamond, scrupulously documents. Study after study has shown that increasing yellow light intervals (the least expensive, if not most profitable, engineering fix) reduces the likelihood of motorist indecision in what engineers call "the dilemma zone"--the second or so it takes to react when encountering a changing light.

Historically, amber times have been set between three and six seconds, depending on a host of variables from the posted speed at an intersection to the grade of its approach.

The formula for these standards comes from a hodgepodge of recommendations by the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) and the Federal Highway Administration's "Manual on Traffic Control Devices." To give just an inkling of how things have changed over the years, in the mid '70s, the Institute of Transportation Engineers recommended a yellow time long enough to factor in reaction time plus stopping time plus "clearance time," or the time it takes to get through an intersection.

But by the late '90s, that standard had been steadily eroded by altogether shaving off clearance time, lowering yellow light intervals by as much as a third, which often leaves the motorist stranded in the dilemma zone. To make matters worse, the ITE, which in 1985 was still recommending yellow lights be lengthened to help clear intersections, now, with the advent of red light cameras, offers that "enforcement can be used instead."

The real-world translation here is that according to 1976 practices, an 80-foot-wide intersection with a 35 mph approach on a 2.6 percent downhill grade would warrant a five-second yellow light interval. But according to 1999 formulas, it is considered acceptable to allot the same intersection a 4 second interval. A second might not seem like much. Consider, however, that even automated-enforcement cheerleader Richard Retting of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety concedes that yellow-light increases decrease the chance of red-light running incidents. Likewise, Retting's studies show that of drivers classified as "red light runners," 80 percent enter an intersection less than a second after a yellow signal has turned red.

The ITE recommendations, of course, weren't carved in stone at Mt. Sinai. Rather, they're published in scarcely read traffic manuals. But increasing yellow-light intervals at problem intersections is certainly easier, if not more profitable, than starting red light camera programs. Extending yellow times has proven successful, even if cities don't publicize it. In San Diego, where even the police chief was caught admitting that at many red-light-camera intersections, accidents have increased, the nation's bloodiest skirmish over red-light cameras has played itself out in court, revealing all sorts of city/contractor chicanery. There, lawyers representing motorists found the city planting a red-light camera at an intersection where no accidents had occurred for years. But that didn't stop the camera from generating 2,000 citations per month, until engineers realized the yellow light was more than a second too short. When they increased it, the number of citations dropped to fewer than 300 per month.

Local police departments that employ automated technology, of course, perpetually stress that their sole concern is reducing accidents. It's curious, then, what happens when you start checking just what steps they have taken to do so. When I asked the District of Columbia's Department of Public Works for a list of yellow-light times at camera intersections, almost all reported a 4-second interval. But ITE standards permit extending yellow lights up to 6 seconds. Keeping in mind that these are supposed to be trouble spots, I inquired about the last time these intervals had been changed. "Years and years ago, maybe never," one employee said. Likewise, though cities are typically coached by contractors to place cameras at heavy-volume intersections (generating more tickets), statistics from the same office reveal a noticeable shortage of red-light cameras at the city's most dangerous intersections. Of the top 10 high-crash intersections for the two years that preceded the District's installation of 39 cameras in 1999, the 1997 figures show four of the top 10 (including 2 of the top 3) did not warrant red-light cameras (even though one of them accounted for two of the only three reported deaths). Additionally, 7 of the top 10 high-crash intersections for 1998 didn't rate cameras--even though they were installed just a year later.

In other cities, the percentages are even worse. In Charlotte, North Carolina, WBTV found their safety conscious officials failed to install cameras at 23 of the highest-crash intersections. And in San Diego, the Red Light Camera Defense Team, a consortium of pro bono lawyers representing motorists against the city found that 12 of the 19 red-light camera intersections had three-second yellow intervals, and that Lockheed Martin IMS--our old friends from D.C.--had sought out intersections with high traffic volume, short yellow cycles, and downhill approaches--the kinds of intersections that citation-happy police officers used to call "cherry ponds" or "duck patches." What the lawyers didn't find was any evidence supporting officials' claims that their program, like D.C.'s and Charlotte's before it, was "about safety." Not a single one of the city's 19 cameras was operating at one of its highest-accident sites.

Tune in Wednesday for Part 3: The Safety Myth

Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4 - Part 5

Matt Labash is senior writer at The Weekly Standard.