Why Won't Local Governments Just Increase The Length Of Yellow Lights?

from the start-a-campaign dept

We’ve seen that, thanks to the economy, states like Maryland and New York are ramping up programs for speed and red light cameras. However, that’s not true of all places. Mississippi recently went the other direction and banned such traffic cameras, following a similar backlash in Arizona. A recent Wall Street Journal article takes a look at all of this (including the fact that some of the bigger traffic camera companies are based in Arizona) and raises the key question: why won’t local governments just increase the length of yellow lights on traffic signals. That, alone, would save numerous accidents (and lives). Yet, many governments have been doing the exact opposite: putting lives at risk, just to bring in more revenue (often to pay off those private companies that installed the cameras). On top of that, there are still plenty of locations that don’t leave any pause between switching lights between cross traffic. Here in California, for example, it’s quite rare for there to be any pause between a light turning red in one direction, and the perpendicular traffic light turning green. Studies have shown that a slight pause — where all directions are red — decreases the number of accidents as well. And yet… governments focus on using traffic cameras solely to increase revenue.

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Comments on “Why Won't Local Governments Just Increase The Length Of Yellow Lights?”

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Bubba Nicholson (profile) says:

Re: Because...

The Bushes were evil. Old Bush personally shot JFK and led mostly Cuban plumbers from his family plantations to shoot, wound shoot at or frame: JFK, RFK, MLK, Wallace, Teddy, Joseph P. Kennedy, Ford and Reagan. W raped hundreds of republican teenagers (mostly teeny boppers) in Dallas and Houston. Together they hired and groomed Obama. He seems to have been a wise selectee, no? At least so far that is. Time will tell.

Anonymous Coward says:

primary function of governments

no, the primary function of governments is to provide fundamental services and oversight where the free market cannot. for instance, fire rescue should never operate on an incentivized basis. if fire rescue was paid based on the number of fires they put out, they have an incentive to start fires. and if they only get paid directly by the people they save, they actually have an interest in waiting until fires spread from the poor neighborhoods to the rich neighborhoods, letting all the people in between become homeless.

if i was a state politician i would make it a first degree felony for any light in the state to have below the federal minimum yellow plus 1 second (the federal minimum ranges from 3-6 depending on the speed at the intersection), or 4 seconds, whichever is larger (so even if they reduce the federal minimums, my state citizens are safer).

and i’m not a bleeding heart liberal who is bitching about saving society from ourselves. i’m a libertanarchist who can’t stand overreaching government. i don’t want local governments in my state abusing people.

Triatomic Tortoise says:

Maryland Traffic Signal Scam

In recent past, I had been cited with a red light jump mailed to me after the camera caught it. I realized that the signal reflector was designed such that it was impossible to tell the signal status on an empty road while the sunshine was directly on the signal reflectors. These reflectors are special types such that they don’t diffuse light very well. As a result, you are likely to miss it if the road is empty and you do not have somebody else or other traffic to confirm. This was in Maryland. However, these are also seen in other states.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

I live in a medium-sized town in central Indiana where there is a discernable pause between one light turning red and the next line turning green. I think the pause is at least a second. People have become adjusted to the pause so now they will run the red if it turns red just before they get to the intersection. Add the runner to a jackrabbit start and you have serious injury.

Regardless of what you do with timing of the lights, pauses, etc., people will continue to run red lights. It is what people do.

Anonymous Coward says:

It’s quite simple. Yellow means stop if it’s safe to do so, red means stop. It’s very easy to not run a red light if you’re not of the “yellow means I have some time to beat the light” crowd or just blindly tailgating the car in front of you. If you drive well, you will not run a red light, one of the most dangerous things you can do on the roadways. You want to know why red light cameras exist? Because people can be inconsiderate and unsafe douchebags behind the wheel, and the bigger populations get, the more douchebags you get.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

I think you’re a little confused about the problem here. The problem isn’t that there are red light cameras, it’s that they’re being installed for profit, so there is incentive to decrease yellow light length (so that people will be more likely to run a red light). To really get rid of the danger, it would be better to lengthen yellow lights and the pause when all lights on an intersection are red.

Pedro says:

Every time red light and/or speed cameras have come up for a vote of the people, they have lost. Voters need to make politicians who blatantly ignore this pay at the ballot box (or rigged ballot computer, or whatever), and work to bring the issue before a general vote. Also, for those who don’t think extending the yellow actually works, look at Georgia, where the state government mandated minimum federal yellow plus one second. Now local governments are abandoning their red light cameras because they don’t bring in enough money. That is, with an extended yellow light, not enough people “run” the red light to cover the costs of the program. Clearly, though, the real reason wasn’t that they weren’t generating enough revenue, it must be that they weren’t generating enough safety.

Jon says:

The issue on red-light cameras is pretty clear; governments use them as a revenue building tool. I’m actually a little more concerned about the Massachusetts Governor.

“Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick is moving ahead with a plan for mandatory GPS devices in cars that would be read at gas pumps and automatically charge drivers for miles driven.”

The fact that this idea is even being considered frightens the crap out of me. It’s almost as bad as the OnStar device that allows OnStar to shut off your car.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

LaHood Talks of Mileage-Based Tax

– a bit off topic but worth discussion
1) GPS in every vehicle is possibly the worst method of implementation.
2) A milage based tax is already in place. The more you drive, the more gas you need and it has worked for many years.

The problem (or excuse) is that cars have become more fuel efficent (government mandate) and therefore revenue has decreased. I guess they overlooked the recession causing people to drive less. The most efficient government response to this government caused problem would be to increase the gas tax. This would keep the fuel efficiency benefit and incentive.

Scary version: government wants to track everyone all the time and this just an excuse to crawl into your vehicle.

Frank J. Mattia says:

i don't think any of those are the "right" solution

no matter how fast or slow the yellow light is, people will still try to beat it. the BEST solution, in my opinion – is to not immediately flip the lights from yellow-red to red-green. rather than that, flip them yellow-red, red-red, red-green.

the red-red time should be set as a federal limit of say… 4 seconds. all directions in an intersection should be red for that limit before allowing travel in any direction. there will always be people who try to “beat the light” – i believe that reducing those fatalities is key to making intersections safer nation wide.

by enacting red-light cameras instead of taking preventative action in the best interest of the drivers mortality – government is clearly saying “we don’t care about you”.

does it really need to be any more complicated than this?


The infamous Joe says:

Re: i don't think any of those are the "right" solution

I assumed this was to catch people who ran the light after it *just* turned red, knowing that there was a period where both lights are red.

It happens all the time here, and it pisses me off– usually because it results in that douche being stuck in the middle of the intersection blocking the people who now get a green light but can’t go anywhere.

Red light cameras are a revenue scam, but the speeding laws are just as much a scam– so no one should feel that this is new. Here in Boston, pretty much everyone speeds (and I’m okay with that!) but I consistently see the state troopers on the side of the road, not pulling anyone over. I’ve always wondered, since we are all breaking the rules, why they only enforce it come the end of the month? Clearly, it’s about revenue and not “making me safe”. (Not that making me drive 55mph makes me any safer than driving 70mph.)

Safe Driver says:

I think the only people who squawk about red light cameras are the people at risk of getting caught by them.

I don’t try to beat yellow lights, and I couldn’t care less if there’s a camera to catch the person who does.

In Germany everyone stops when the light is yellow, because while your light is going green-yellow-red, the opposite light is going red-yellow-GREEN and those drivers are *ready to go* on green!

If our traffic lights worked like that here, the problem of running red lights would be solved….. eventually….

Derek Kerton (profile) says:

Re: Re:

So you are advocating using cars moving in the perpendicular direction, but in the path of traffic, as as signal that it REALLY is time to stop?

Yeah, that should improve safety.

Meanwhile, the smart commenters (and the research) say the exact opposite: that having the two directions display Red simultaneously for some short time reduces accidents.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: It's rediculous in California

Ah! So that’s where the term “California Stop” comes from.

My old man does CDL licensing in a neighboring state, and he said “I would have ticketed you for stopping in a clear intersection on a right turn for endangering people behind you”

Seriously, all you Californians really, really, have been babied and don’t know how to drive.

There’s a reason why we all laugh at you behind your back.

Traffic Engineer says:

No Intergreen Period?

As a traffic engineer in the UK I find it astonishing that there is no period of time (intergreen period) between streams of traffic having green time. This is an incredibly straightforward safety measure, designed to prevent drivers being in the centre of the junction when the other stream gets green time.

Moreover, those who sanctimoniously claim that all drivers should stop on yellow are simply wrong. The yellow light is to tell drivers to stop if safe to do so. You would not want drivers who are about to enter the junction to slam on the brakes if the light turns yellow, would you?

geekwrench (user link) says:

red light cameras

Main problem: its too easy to get a drivers license
side problem: people prefer to assume
I am a professional mechanic. Ive covered over half million miles of driving around California. Long yellows mean more runners. Longer pauses cause emancipators to run into eliminators. I’m sorry to say but the intersections with the cameras seem to have the least # of accidents.

Alan says:


Over here (in South Australia) we have red-light cameras BUT they seem to have a lag of about 1.5 seconds, so they only hit the people who have definitely run the red. Similarly, we have a red-red on all intersections, so people turning against the traffic (right over here, left over there) who are already in the intersection still have time to make it across before the other direction turns green. Works OK until some moron actually runs a red light…

Driver says:

it's on the drivers

It’s simple. States don’t have a delay or very little delay in the change between lights because if there is a delay, the drivers learn the timing and they assume they can be safe more often when running a red/yellow light. It’s like speed limits. They post a 65 speed limit when in reality its ok to be doing 70 or 75 because everybody is and I’ve only seen one time when the cops actually pulled everybody over.

Road rules, signs, lights.. etc are all forms of control. The more stretch they have to them the more we the drivers will stretch them.

nasch says:

Re: it's on the drivers

By that reasoning, the light going one way should turn green while the opposite direction is still yellow. Because if you wait until one light is red before turning the other one green, drivers learn the timing and assume they can be safe more often when running a red/yellow light.

You see how making stuff up is less reliable than actual data?

Anonymous Coward says:

There was a post some time ago in a thread about red light or speed cameras in which the poster pointed out compelling logic regarding safety vs revenue. A short search did not locate the post. Anyway, it was pointed out that if the cameras were put in place for the sole purpose of safety, then they would be expected to lose money and the yellow would be lenghtened for safety regardless of cost. And furthermore, upon losing money they would stay in place – for your safety.

Glen (user link) says:

An extra light prior to the yellow light

As I see it, the yellow lights are too short and we don’t know how long they will be on (some are on longer then others).
The answer is to add another light prior to the yellow light to give us that extra time to stop (especially in bigger rigs – it is harder to stop).
With today’s technology this could be done easily. How about make the yellow light FLASH for 2 seconds prior to turning (solid) yellow.
This would give us the extra time we need to safely stop.

AZ (user link) says:

because the ATM aspect of these cameras is like a drug

They don’t because these cameras are like an ATM that is a drug for the cities that are cash strapped. The company that makes them pays for studies that show how they can help cities, then hire lobbyists to get the laws passed, and then split the revenue with the cities. Everybody wins, right, wrong! The average driver doesn’t. The only way to stop them is to cut off the air – the $ they make. I got a GPS device called gps angel (http://www.gpsangel.com) that beeps when I’m near one of these cameras. Picked it up for $99 on Amazon.

David says:


Is this correct? “Here in California, for example, it’s quite rare for there to be any pause between a light turning red in one direction, and the perpendicular traffic light turning green.”. Here in the UK, I`ve never, ever heard of a set of traffic lights that aren’t staggered (as we call it) in their timing, normally being red on both sets for several seconds. Mind you, that still doesn’t stop the jumpers who know about this and take chances. As a professional driver, I’ve seen it all – and some!

Spectere (profile) says:

Re: Delay

Is this correct? “Here in California, for example, it’s quite rare for there to be any pause between a light turning red in one direction, and the perpendicular traffic light turning green.”. Here in the UK, I`ve never, ever heard of a set of traffic lights that aren’t staggered (as we call it) in their timing, normally being red on both sets for several seconds.

I suppose it could be just a California thing. I’ve lived both in Ohio and Maryland, and have also driven extensively in Florida and Pennsylvania, and don’t recall seeing a set of lights that weren’t staggered like that.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: What?

What country are you talking about? The death toll for 2008 was 37,313 in the United States, which appears to be more than a minor amount off from 50k.

Source: http://www.cnn.com/2009/TRAVEL/04/06/us.traffic.deaths/

On a slightly separate, but related note, intersection accidents are typically the #1 or #2 site of traffic accidents and deaths. According to the Federal Highway Administration, in spite of changes in intersection designs and safety improvements, the percentage of accidents at intersections have not changed significantly. Their recommendation? Get rid of intersections and go to roundabouts.

Source: http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/resourcecenter/teams/safety/safe_7rnd.cfm

Cheese McBeese says:

People will always push the limits on any system. For every logical or courteous person there are a dozen idiots who will ‘learn’ the length of the yellow light and try to run the edge of the red light.

Cameras are expensive and unnecessary. It’s time to embed RFID chips into license plates (add the cost to the license) and replace cameras with simple radio scanning strips built into the roads. The same thing could be done on highways to detect speeding. Your car could tell you that “You are traveling more than 10% over the speed limit. You have 15 seconds to slow down or you will be issued a speeding ticket.” This could all be done today. It’s cheaper and far less complex than the nav systems people use.

So why don’t we solve this problem? Because WE are the idiots who all run the red lights and WE are also the same people who elect the idiots in government who make the rules. When WE want to solve these types of silly issues, WE will.

Anonymous Coward says:

Redlight Cameras don't work.

True, Red light cameras are merely a bandage for a larger problem of flying overpasses.

In my state, they tried red light cameras for about a decade at a few choice intersections that were among the top 50 in traffic in the country.

Redlight Cameras, and the idea of legislating by re-programming behaviours also doesn’t take into consideration population and city growth.

Eventually, the local municipality got smart, and the intersections with redlight cameras in 1996 were voted on replacement by voters, and approved by a large margin.

The flyovers to not only replaced the lights, but also the cameras. This solution not only increased safety, but also was in-line with proposed 10 and 15 year population growth estimates in the area. Plus, increased commercial and retail establishments ultimately lead to collection of more sales tax revenue.

Sometimes you just need to bite the bullet and quit looking to make a quick buck:
Pissing off residents can create a gap in collectible tax revenue by making them move.

And pissing off people who come to spend money in your municipality makes them patronize elsewhere.

YoMamma says:

Mo' Money

Why not increase yellow time? Because going through red makes them money.

Same reason Police hide to catch a speeder when it is proven that keeping the Police car visible is enough to slow people down. Is the priority to keep people safe or get money?

Same reason they hide at the bottom of a hill vs. the top… easy money.

Why they hate responding to domestic disturbances? No Money.

Why the traffic stops quadruple in Feb-Mar? End of fiscal year time to make their budget.

The list goes on.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Mo' Money

Some people will not learn, even with a HIGHLY VISIBLE police car…

One day I was driving on highway 270 in St. Louis County. I came to a clot of traffic as we passed the McDonnell exit on the west side of St. Louis County. I realized there was an unmarked police car leading the group and settled back with the rest of the group.

I looked in my rear view mirror to see a sporty little car blistering down highway 270. The young female driver quickly slowed when she realized that I was not going to move over (I was in the far left lane and could not move over because there were cars beside me). She was within a car length of my bumper for 5 or 10 seconds before dropping back and moving right.

The police car had been moving toward the right lane, perhaps to get off at Lindbergh. However, as the young lady zipped to the far right lane and squeezed into gaps between cars, the unmarked police car (which was covered in antennas and had clearly visible red and blue lights in the rear window, a spotlight clearly visible even from behind in any lane to the left of the police car, AND a state license plate – it would take an idiot to miss the car), began shifting lanes back to the left.

When the young lady got through the crowd of cars, she hit the gas and took off, passing the police car, which was in the lane next to hers, and quickly disappearing as 270 begins to curve east at this point. Since we were driving 60 mph, I estimate her speed at between 80 and 90 mph.

I watched the highway patrolman to see what he was going to do. He reached over, picked up and put on his hat, straightening it. Then he hit the lights and the gas at the same time, quickly disappearing around the curve on 270.

A short time later I passed the police car, now parked on the should of 270 behind the zippy little sports car with its oblivious driver.

Moral: It does not matter how obvious the police cars are. It does not matter how long the yellow lights are. It does not matter how long the gap is between the red and the green lights. Someone will always break the law for some mental justification and statistically the more of these violations there are, the more accidents there will be. It is because people will always figure out how to game the system that changes to intersections will not work.

The only real problem with red light cameras is that it catches the people who game the system, pissing them off. Amazingly, we have one traffic circle or roundabout in our town, our first, in fact, and guess what? Yep, it pisses people off because, wait for it…IT SLOWS THEM DOWN AND THEY HAVE TO ACTUALLY WAIT FOR TRAFFIC ALREADY IN THE CIRCLE. Amazing. I have heard of people aiming for a referendum to get rid of the traffic circle. Too funny.

nasch says:

Re: Re: Mo' Money

Someone will always break the law for some mental justification and statistically the more of these violations there are, the more accidents there will be. It is because people will always figure out how to game the system that changes to intersections will not work.

The reasoning here is flawed. The fact that some number of people will break the law no matter what does not imply that no improvement of outcomes is possible.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Mo' Money


I did not mean to imply that there was no potential for improvement of outcomes. Indeed, there are statistics that show improvements can be had. Increasing the length of yellow lights appears to decrease accidents, at least in the short term. I have not seen studies regarding long term use of increased length yellow lights. I have also seen studies that indicate that the use of traffic circles has a significant affect on fatal accidents and serious injuries, and I believe on accidents in general. Lastly, I am aware of numerous studies showing that speed cameras (as opposed to red light cameras) statistically correlate with reduced accidents and deaths.

Yes, some people will always break the law, even if it if virtually certain they will get caught. Perhaps what I should have said was that because people will always figure out how to game the system by learning how the new system works (I can safely run a red light up to 4 seconds after the light changes) that changes will never be as effective as we would like them to be, and changes may have their greatest effect immediately after the change and then slowly decline in effectiveness with time. I look forward to the studies.

Bradley Stewart (profile) says:

Isn't that why we elect our Government?

To steal our money. I’m not a Lawyer but I would bet if one could make a good case that this practice caused at least one serious injury to a person or persons and the initial reason for this traffic light was not safety but as a money maker. One hefty personal injury law suit against the city that was won in court and cost the citizens of that city a lot of money would go a long way to ending this legaly sanctioned criminal practice by our Government would soon come to a thank full end.

mwalczak says:

Yes may all be true, and should be regulated, but this country needs something more like Germany or England since I have seen many accidents by red light runners. I have even been at a number of red lights when I lived in Illinois where I could not even get into the intersection because of the red light runners, and I was the first care in line. As country we want it both ways, we want to break the law and in force the law when it serves us.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Germany possibly has some idea.

But even the mere suggestion England’s implementation would be warmly welcomed in the USA leaves me shaking my head. Violently. If I was a child, I would probably be pronounced dead right now from SIDS.

How long did you stay in England, mwalczak? Probably not very long. Or perhaps, the inverse is true. How long have you been in the USA, mwalzak?

Mark Schippel says:

Longer Yellow Lights

Being in the army I have lived in several countries and states. The problem has nothing to do with the length of the lights but with the drivers who are trying to beat the lights. It has been getting worse here in the U.S. over the last several years. Here in Georgia it is not safe to go as soon as the light turns green necause there will always be one more moron who will run the red light. By the way the yellow lights here are about 4-5 seconds. Longer yellow lights mean more runners. If cameras increase city revenue and lower accident rates then bring them on. If enough people get tickets it might even lower local taxes (yeah, right).

Brad says:

Switerland does something different

When I was traveling in Switzerland recently I was intrigued by the way they handle traffic lights. When the light goes yellow in one direction, the opposite direction also gets the yellow lit up (along with the red still lit). This gives the other direction the cue that they are about to get to go.

I wonder if the knowledge that the other side is going to be revved and ready to take off when they turn green cuts down on the number of people trying to sneak through at the end, sort of the opposite of putting a delay in where both are red for a moment.

bobo says:

Blinking Yellow

I was in Canada (Vancouver I think), the light is green, turns yellow and then blinks yellow 4 or 5 times before it turns red. This gives people more of a sense of when the light will change. Yes, I understand then you will just have people trying to beat the flashing yellow, but at least its an effort. The easiest thing is just to know how to drive, but where I live that is usually asking too much.

Gotta love getting your license at 16 and never having to take a drivers test again.

Ridiculous says:

It’s pretty ridiculous how most of you think about camera placement and red light.
Because all of you are nagging, about a corrupt government and what not.
It’s the same government that tries its best to keep you people safe, that’s where the camera is for, of course there is a redneck every once in a while that runs a red-light and gets caught on camera, but did you ever stop and tried to think about how many people stop when they know there is a camera around.

I’ve seen some horrific driving accidents just because the idiots that have a green light spent more time looking at the traffic light, and making sure they make a rocket start than they pay attention on the road ahead of them.

Yellow means stop when it’s safe to do so, there are few situations where it is not safe, for example if you have make a break on a dime or when a big truck is to close (where you could trigger an accident if you pushed the breaks).

Stephen Stockman says:

Smart Lights

I looked through the posts and could not find any reference to it but I find it hard to believe that no one would bring it up.

Smart lights.
Lights that detect if someone is about to run a red light that turn all lights red.

I live in Houston and the few lights I have seen where there is a delay before a light goes green, all lights are red, there has been a huge difference in the number of people running lights. Has turned some intersections from death traps to just dangerous.

The red light cameras are everywhere around where I live.. Has it helped? No. Not at all. The cameras go off about 5 times every red light. I wonder how many accidents the flash has caused oncoming traffic..

Anonymous Coward says:

Compounding crimes...

lol…I saw it again today. I was heading home for lunch and stopped at an intersection where the speed limit was 30 mph. The light turned yellow and a person about a half block away hit the gas. The light turned red and about a second later the speeder, now going between 40 and 50 mph, hit the red light about a second after it changed. So, speeding at least 10 mph over the speed limit, running a red light, going too fast for existing conditions (considering he was going a lot faster than the cars he was with, this might fly) and driving recklessly (going 10 mph or more faster than everyone else is clearly reckless). I wish someone had a video camera or that there had been a cop at the intersection.

Anonymous Coward says:

At least were I am at, adding time to the yellow light wouldn’t resolve the problem and from what I have seen, no where else would it either. People think the yellow light means hit the gas, the light will change.

If people see that there is a delay between their light going red and the cross street going green, they will think it is alright to run the light red because there is that delay.

We got two red light cameras where I live. Those intersections are a lot safer then before they were installed as red light didn’t mean anything to most drivers.

jim says:

Red light camera

I was driving off the expressway ramp and the light started to turn yellow at the stop light. I am going 40 miles per hour the speed limit maybe a little fasted getting off the expressway. The light after turning yellow three seconds later turns red while I am moving. Stopping would have been a danger move on my part. A few days later in the mail is a stop light violation. I was yellow to short of time to stop completely. This camera is located on exit 59 eastbound ramp off of the LIE I 495 Long Island NY.

Steve says:

Red light cameras

Most red light cameras stay in the same place for years. You could avoid some by changing your route everyday to avoid being rear ended or rear ending someone.I would like
to see in Illinois automatic NO TURN ON RED at all intersections with a camera.By the way only two counties
around the St.Loius area and six around Chicago can have
Red Light Cameras so this means if you move elsewhere in that state it is possible you will never see one.

Medhue says:

primary function of governments

Sorry, but I have to respond, as you know very little about the market. In a real free market, and for most businesses, their decisions are based on the response of the customers. It is the customers that are the people that drive the direction of the business. In the case of a fire department, it is quite likely that the individual stations could easily be privatized, but paid by the local city. They would be far more efficient, and approaches varying between different companies. We live in a time where technology is moving at lightspeed, and it is only a business looking to compete that can innovate at a speed to keep up with society. Even in the area of traffic control, we are seeing 1 bad technology being used by almost every single city in the US. This would never happen in a market based industry. The cost of these lights is many times higher than the old lights, with little to no benefit at all. No business would have done this. Not to even mention the increased cost of maintenance.

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