Short yellow light times at intersections have been shown to increase the number of traffic violations and accidents. Conversely, increasing the yellow light duration can dramatically reduce red-light violations at an intersection.
Some local governments have ignored the safety benefit of increasing the yellow light time and decided to install red-light cameras, shorten the yellow light duration, and collect the profits instead.
Here are some of the cities that have been caught with short yellow light times over the past few years:
Important note: These news stories were collected from the archives of TheNewspaper.com, an excellent resource for anyone interested in traffic laws and other motorist issues. If you subscribe to TheNewspaper.com’s feed, you’ll never miss the latest news. It makes an excellent complement to this blog.
1) Chattanooga, Tennessee
The city of Chattanooga was forced refund $8800 in red light cameras tickets issued to motorists trapped by an illegally short yellow time. The refund only occurred after a motorist challenged his citation by insisting that the yellow light time of 3.0 seconds was too short. LaserCraft, the private vendor that runs the camera program in return for a cut of the profits, provided the judge with a computer database that asserted the yellow was 3.8 seconds at that location.
The judge then personally checked the intersection in question was timed at three seconds while other nearby locations had about four seconds of yellow warning. City traffic engineer John Van Winkle told Bean that “a mix up with the turn arrow” was responsible and that the bare minimum for the light should be 3.9 seconds.
2) Dallas, Texas
An investigation by KDFW-TV, a local TV station, found that of the ten cameras that issued the greatest number of tickets in the city, seven were located at intersections where the yellow duration is shorter than the bare minimum recommended by the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT).
The city’s second highest revenue producing camera, for example, was located at the intersection of Greenville Avenue and Mockingbird Lane. It issued 9407 tickets worth $705,525 between January 1 and August 31, 2007. At the intersections on Greenville Avenue leading up to the camera intersection, however, yellows are at least 3.5 or 4.0 seconds in duration, but the ticket-producing intersection’s yellow stands at just 3.15 seconds. That is 0.35 seconds shorter than TxDOT’s recommended bare minimum. Dallas likewise installed the cameras at locations with existing short yellow times. A total of twenty-one camera intersections in Dallas had yellow times below TxDOT’s bare minimum recommended amount.
The ticket camera program in Dallas made the news recently for shutting down some of its cameras because they were no longer profitable.
3) Springfield, Missouri
The city of Springfield, Missouri prepared for the installation of a red light camera system in 2007 by slashing the yellow warning time by one second at 105 state-owned intersection signals across the city.
The city defended its effort to the Springfield News-Leader by claiming it was “standardizing” and had increased the yellow time at 136 city-operated lights to meet national standards. During the city council meeting last October where the red light camera ordinance was approved, however, Assistant Director of Public Works Earl Newman gave a different explanation for the reduction. Newman said he was, “concerned that many individuals run the light if the light remained yellow too long.”
4) Lubbock, Texas
KBCD, a local television station, exposed the city’s short timing of yellow lights at eight of the twelve intersections where the devices were to be installed.
Prior to the news investigation, Lubbock City Engineer Jere Hart assured city council members that he would not increase yellow times. According to the city council’s traffic commission minutes of September 19, 2006, Jere said, “if [the red light camera program is] implemented, the public would prefer to have an increased amber cycle,” but he stated that, “the program will not adjust the amber/yellow time.”
Shortly after the investigation became public, red-light cameras were installed in Lubbock. However, after they proved to be both unprofitable (due in part to a new state law giving 50% of the ticket camera profit to the state) and unsafe (accidents increased where the cameras were installed), they were taken down.
Even without red light cameras, police in Nashville, Tennessee have been earning hundreds of thousands in revenue by trapping motorists in conventional ticket traps at city intersections with the shortest yellow warning time.
In 2006, Nashville resident Joe Savage obtained the data on every red light running ticket issued on Broadway street since 2000. He said that yellow lights are longer at intersections along Broadway until the areas where police are issuing tickets. At those locations, Savage clocked the yellow signal time at less than 3 seconds, in violation of both state law and federal regulations. A local newspaper, The Nashville Scene, then confirmed his findings.
6) Union City, California
In 2005, Union City, California was caught trapping motorists with a yellow signal time 1.3 seconds below the minimum established by state law. As a result, the city was forced to refund more than $1 million in red light camera fines.
The city’s violation came to light after Dave Goodson, an engineer, received a ticket and realized that he did not have sufficient time to stop before the light had turned red. As a result of his inquiries, Union City’s traffic engineers admitted that they had set the yellow signal time at Union City Boulevard and Lowry Road at 3 seconds, despite the state law mandating the time be 4.3 seconds or greater.
Authorities said that the yellow was too short long before the cameras were installed, but that no effective system was in place to verify the timing of the traffic signals despite their direct impact on safety.
These are only the cities that have been caught; it’s likely that this happens much more than the general public has been led to believe. Many cities avoid the bad publicity involved with shortening yellow lights by installing the cameras at intersections with inadequate yellow light times from the beginning.
If you or a family member receive an unjustified red-light violation ticket, it may be worth your time to check the yellow light duration at the intersection where the ticket was given out.