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Yellow lights getting shorter

Posted: September 1st, 2007 @ 10:57pm

Source: Daniel F. Drummond, The Washington Times

A congressional report to be released today shows that yellow lights on traffic signals are getting shorter, causing more drivers to inadvertently run red lights and get caught by cameras that some say invade drivers´ privacy.

The report, from the office of House Majority Leader Rep. Dick Armey, Texas Republican, concludes that many local governments using red-light cameras have shortened the duration of yellow lights, allowing those jurisdictions to reap revenue from traffic tickets given to unsuspecting motorists. The Washington Times has obtained a copy of the report.

"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," an executive summary of the 23-page report states. "The options for those confronting such circumstance are limited, and unsafe. But each time a driver faces the dilemma, the government increases its odds of cashing in."

Local jurisdictions such as Fairfax County, the District and Montgomery County have cameras set up at intersections and other high-traffic spots to catch red-light runners.

Mr. Armey´s report suggests that since 1985, when yellow-light lead times began to be shortened, governments across the country have pressed for even shorter times to step up enforcement by red-light cameras.

Armey spokesman Richard Diamond said the cameras invade people´s privacy and have turned the notion of "innocent until proven guilty" on its head.

"We are told that we are supposed to give up our constitutional protections and our privacy because red-light cameras are about safety," Mr. Diamond said. "But what we have found is that these cameras may undermine safety [and with the cameras] we can´t face our accusers in court and we are assumed guilty until proven innocent."

The report states that local governments have turned the red-light cameras into a money-making enterprise. Mr. Diamond said "this is a gimmick" in which jurisdictions around the country are shortening yellow lights so that more drivers will run red lights and more revenue from traffic tickets will be collected.

The report, based on other studies and press clippings, as well as local, state and federal data from the Federal Highway Administration (FHA) and other federal agencies, found that:
  • In the District, a single camera collected more than $1 million in revenue and that $16 million was to be collected from 37 cameras throughout the city. About 40 percent of those fines have been going to the city´s contractor, Lockheed Martin.
  • In Montgomery County, local officials asked that the fines for running a red light be raised from $75 to $250.
  • In Howard County, Md., more than 70,000 tickets were written between 1998 and 2000, bringing in more than $4 million in fines.
The report states that, if the duration of a yellow light were lengthened, it would lessen the chances for accidents, especially at busy intersections. The executive summary states that when yellow-light lead times were extended by about 30 percent -- 1.4 seconds -- from an average of 3 to 4 seconds -- red-light running was eliminated or reduced by about 79 percent.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety estimates that about 260,000 crashes -- and 800 deaths and 1,200 injuries -- a year nationwide are caused by red-light runners. The report states that the insurance industry, as well as local governments, are cashing in on red-light cameras since more violations lead to higher auto insurance premiums.

Mr. Diamond said, as does the report, that the problem with the shortened yellow times can be traced back to 1985, when the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) first began to recommend that yellow lead times be shortened from the traditional five or more seconds to a little over three seconds.

In 1989, the ITE´s proposal, which is followed closely by the FHA and local and state governments, recommended that in a typical intersection "five seconds of yellow . . . reduce it to three seconds of yellow, and two seconds in which all sides of the intersection are given the red light."

Mr. Diamond said this kind of reduction makes the red light turn faster and the camera snap more often.

Lon Anderson, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said he had not seen the report but noted commuters in the Washington area are "generally in favor of the red-light systems."

"The public understands that red-light running kills," Mr. Anderson said.

Rep. James P. Moran, Virginia Democrat, said that he doesn´t understand why Mr. Armey is so concerned about what is essentially a local issue.

"If you stop at a red light, you shouldn´t have anything to worry about," he said.

Published: 5/23/2001/ Copyright © 2001 News World Communications, Inc. All rights reserved.

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