Exposing the "safety" myth of red light cameras

The Chronicle's Janet Elliott told us Saturday that legislation in Austin to ban red light cameras appears to be dead, which is undoubtedly welcome news for MayorWhiteChiefHurtt.

Since it appears Houstonians will now face two different standards for red light offenses (criminal, if written up by a police officer; civil, if caught on camera) let's look back at the City Council minutes from last December when Council debated the issue. What I find especially noteworthy is that in public comments several people suggested lengthening yellow light times, and several councilmembers appeared to be interested in the idea, even asking city officials (Mayor White included) if it had been studied. The disappointing response from one city official follows: (pdf, page 7):

Upon questions by Council Members, Mr. Michel [Art Michel, City Attorney] stated that he was not aware if they had done a study on lengthening the yellow light signal at those intersections where they had red light crashes or where they were looking at putting the cameras, but believed someone was aware of those studies[...]

Adjusting yellow light times at the intersections slated for cameras apparently wasn't even considered. I'd say that's incredible, but it seems par for the course under Mayor White's leadership.

Next (page 8), Councilwoman Shelley Sekula-Gibbs asked Mayor White to do an evaluation of yellow light times at problem intersections and make necessary adjustments if the yellow was too short.

Councilwoman Ada Edwards also expressed a desire to study the effect of lengthening yellow light times for a three- to six-month period of time.

Mayor White's response should put to rest any idea that red light cameras are about safety:

Mayor White stated that they would consider the timing of the yellow light, Mr. Malanga [Hugo Malanga, Deputy Director, Traffic and Transportation Division] in his analysis of the literature where they had done those studies had pointed out that it had to be over an extended period of time, that there was an issue that Council as a whole would want to consider, if they increased the total amount of red and yellow they would decrease mobility, that he had asked Mr. Malanga to put a report back to Council on the issues.

Aha. The mayor thinks lengthening red and yellow light times will decrease mobility. So the red light issue isn't really about safety after all.

And at the previous week's Council meeting (12-14-2004), when Council was talking about how the fines would be collected since the tickets will be a civil matter, Mayor White expressed hope (pdf, page 10) that the state would change the law so that someone with multiple violations would not be able to renew his or her drivers license. What an amazing thought process Mayor White has!

Now let's look a bit more at yellow light timing. Did you know that 30 years ago, yellow light times were longer than they are today?

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.


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.

Did you catch that? Eighty percent of drivers who run red lights do so within the first second after a light has turned red. And over the past 30 years, yellow light times have decreased. Cities have created yellow light traps, where a driver has to decide between slamming on the brakes and hoping not to be rear-ended, or flooring the accelerator to try and make it through the intersection. If cities would lengthen yellow light times, red light running would decrease, as even a camera proponent admits.

Recently, KHOU-11 tagged along with a red light camera opponent to check out the signal timing at the intersection of 249 and Greens Road:

Drivers sit through a 55-second red light, get just a 12-second green, and then get trapped by a quick yellow.

"It's set up to cause red-light running," Kubosh says.

And contrary to Mayor White's assurances that the city would consider looking at yellow light times, the city never had any intention of doing so, as evidenced by this from HPD Assistant Chief Martha Montalvo:

[... Montalvo] says she doesn't intend to even try adding a second or two to the yellow lights. She's sticking with the cameras.

"I truly believe this program is going to work, and I don't see the logic of lengthening the yellow light," she says.

Drivers are presumed guilty. Absolutely no consideration is given to the thought that intersections could have bad traffic signal timing.

Here's another very interesting thing to think about: the idea of red light cameras in Houston began with Chief Hurtt. Red light cameras were installed under his watch in Phoenix and he's a big proponent of them. But Phoenix did things a little differently: a full year before red light cameras were installed, there was a massive infomation campaign to make people aware of the red light running problem and to encourage people to change their driving behavior. It was called "Brake on Yellow...Stop on Red":

[...]the police department implemented a Red Light Running Public Awareness / Enforcement Campaign with the common theme, “Brake on Yellow…Stop on Red.” The objective of this campaign is to change driving behaviors through public awareness of traffic safety concerns and increased enforcement efforts.

Our goal is to work with local media in distributing our traffic safety message, similar to the “Two Seconds Is Too Long” campaign the Phoenix Fire Department has successfully used in the past. "The Brake on Yellow…Stop on Red" campaign kicked off with a press conference on Aug. 30, 2000 and actual enforcement began the following Tuesday, on Sep. 5, 2000. This program will continue until new photo red light cameras are installed at various intersections in Phoenix as part of the city's overall efforts to reduce the number of red light running violations; camera installation is expected in Fall 2001.

Not only that, but citizens were encouraged to call a traffic safety hotline to report intersections where traffic violations were frequently occurring. The top problem intersections would then see an increase in traffic enforcement and the intersections were listed online.

Did Houston try anything like what Phoenix did?

No! There has been no attempt by the city to bring attention to the red light running "epidemic," as the mayor calls it, except for an occasional media story. Has the city put up signs at the worst intersections, notifying drivers of the problem? Why not attempt to modify driver behavior through an all-out information campaign? We know which intersections are the worst -- did HPD increase traffic enforcement at those? Or is that not possible because of HPD's manpower shortage? Why hasn't the city used the past six months to look at alternatives to cameras? (Of course we know why. Look at page 5 of this eye-popping report to see what MayorWhiteChiefHurtt are dreaming of: A single camera in San Diego brought in $6.8 million in 18 months!)

In essence what we have here are cities all over the U.S. changing long-established rules of driving (shortening yellow light times), discovering it causes problems (red light runner crashes) and then fixing it by further punishing drivers (red light cameras) instead of adding time back to the yellow light cycle.

Or put another way, a company puts out a defective product and charges consumers a hefty fee, not to fix the defect, but merely to manage it in its defective state.

And drivers in Houston will soon be paying the price, literally.

Posted by Anne Linehan @ 05/22/05 08:37 PM | Print |

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