California City Finds Optimum Balance Between Safety And Profit, Trims Yellow Light Times To Produce Spike In Citations

from the tickets-will-continue-until-fiscal-morale-improves dept

If your city has red light cameras installed, the length of time that yellow lights stay yellow largely depends on how much revenue the cameras are generating, rather than how much safer the intersection is.

The Newspaper reports Fremont, California officials are mucking about with yellow light timing, supposedly to adhere to local regulations. But one can’t help but notice the dramatic drop in citations that follows any lengthening of yellow lights.

City leaders are […] fully aware of the impact that a small change in yellow time can have on citations. In 2010, a local activist, the late Roger Jones, asked the CalTrans to investigate the signal timing at the intersection of Mission Boulevard and Mohave Drive. CalTrans agreed with Jones that the timing was too short and ordered Fremont’s engineers to boost the yellow from 4.3 to 5.0 seconds. The number of monthly tickets issued at the location immediately plunged and stayed down by an average of 77 percent, while in the rest of the city the average number of tickets issued did not change.

But safety! someone exclaims (possibly red light camera provider Redflex and a handful of legislators):

In fact, the city formally recognized that the cameras by themselves did nothing to reduce violations.

Since that point, Fremont has continued to “experiment” with its yellow light times. It shaved 0.7 seconds off the timer at a pair of intersections. It originally had them set at 4.7 seconds, something it couldn’t alter because of CalTrans regulations that required “realistic speed limit estimates” when adjusting yellow light timing. Since CalTrans’s regulations weren’t helping the city (or Redflex) make the most of this revenue stream, the city chose to alter the terms of the deal. It switched to a more permissive traffic survey — one that allowed it to take 0.7 seconds away from the yellow light, and add millions of dollars to its bottom line.

The effect was immediate. Increasing the yellow time by 0.7 seconds in 2015 slashed the number of tickets issued at Farwell Drive by 77 percent, and shortening it back to 4.0 seconds in February 2016 caused a 445 percent spike in ticketing. At Blacow Road, the change to a 4.7 second yellow slashed violations by 68 percent. Shortening it back to 4.0 seconds sent violations skyward by 883 percent.

For undisclosed reasons, the city switched the yellow lights back to 4.7 seconds in November. The city refused to discuss its traffic light timing alterations. In fact, as The Newspaper reports, it actually pretended it never happened.

“I’ve been assured by my staff that the yellow light timing was only changed (increased to 4.7 seconds) in July 2015 and has not changed since then,” [Public Works Director Hans S.] Larsen wrote in a February 4 email chain.

According to Larsen, any number of ridiculous theories could explain the 445-883% leap in tickets: seasonal traffic spikes, navigation apps [?], the “rebound effect” [??]. He then accused the local media for “misleading the public” about the city’s yellow light windfall.

Shortly thereafter, Larsen reversed course. It wasn’t all those implausible things he said it could have been. Taking his criticism like a man and upstanding servant of the people, Larsen blamed the yellow light timing changes on an intern.

“Despite my staff’s strong belief that the signal timing wasn’t adjusted as the KPIX report suggests, we are looking into the possibility that a student intern (who is no longer with us) may have facilitated a timing change without key staff knowing about it,” Larsen wrote on February 5.

Larsen looked into it some and confirmed that, yes, it was all the fault of consultants and interns. A few Public Works staff members may have played a part as well. As for which interval is the most profitable correct timing? Larsen says it’s the one that produces the most citations.

Rather than keep the current low level of red light violations in place, however, Larsen declared the 4.0 second signal timing “correct.”

“The period of time the signals were operating with 4.7 seconds of yellow time was above and beyond the minimum standards,” Larsen wrote on February 13.

That assertion will be worth about $2.4 million to Fremont over the next year. Of course, it’s the “correct” call, even if the cameras do nothing to discourage violations or increase the safety of Fremont’s drivers.

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Comments on “California City Finds Optimum Balance Between Safety And Profit, Trims Yellow Light Times To Produce Spike In Citations”

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Ninja (profile) says:

Maybe it’s just me but it seems obvious that if just changes in yellow light timings has such aggressive effect on tickets then the drivers aren’t actually disrespecting the red light.

In fact, I’ve been either a witness or directly involved in 4 incidents where the driver in the front (me in one of them) hit the brakes hard and caused an accident to avoid cameras.

timmaguire42 (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Absolutely right. This shows that most red light violations are the result of drivers misjudging how much time they have to stop when the light turns yellow. It’s not surprising that actual incidents of someone running a red light are in fact quite rare. How often do you see it happen in your daily commute? Never? Almost never?

More evidence that red light cameras are a scam.

orbitalinsertion (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

I would imagine it is a problem particularly when we expect standardized traffic signs and signals and the timing of something as important as intersection traffic signals is not only neither standardized nor optimized (for safety), but the timing may also fluctuate, unknown to the public, at the whim of some officials (or shady interns @@).

P.S., If your interns can do things like change traffic light timing, you have a serious fscking problem, Bob.

John85851 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

_How often do you see it happen in your daily commute?_
The main reason for running red lights is that the timing is way too short.
I used to work in an office off a major road. The traffic light would be green for the side road, but would only stay green long enough to let 3 or 4 cars through the intersection. Then the light would be red for 5 minutes, then turn green again to only let 3 cars through.
Now imagine all the people leaving the office at once and this light has 10-15 cars backed up. If you’re the 15th car in line, you’re looking at 5 sets of 3 cars at 5 minutes… or about 25 minutes simply waiting for that one light to turn green!

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

If you look on Youtube and search for Springfield, OH traffic camera videos you’ll quickly see that in the most extreme cases red light cameras don’t stop people running red lights at speed. There’s a lot of people running the lights without even slowing down, and these are locals who know the cameras are there and watching.

Shortening the yellow warning light time doesn’t do anything but increase ticket income, and it certainly will eventually increase traffic accidents as these communities make the lights even shorter to increase revenue. This is only going to get worse unless there’s a general outcry from the voters “enough is enough”.

The Wanderer (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Counterargument / devil’s advocate: people who respond to a yellow light by trying to get through before it turns red will fail more often when the time is shorter, and will end up running the red light. Those people would contribute to an increase in red-light running as a result of the timing change, but are indeed – as you put it – disrespecting the red light.

jcwconsult (profile) says:

Re: RLC rear end crashes

Increased rear end crashes and near misses as people panic brake to save $490 are common and are a LOT more common when cities like Fremont find excuses to set or leave the yellow intervals too short to increase the amount of revenue literally stolen from safe drivers with the deliberately improper engineering. It is a racket that is essentially equivalent to larceny. NO ONE should support red light cameras, they are always money grab rackets.

James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

orbitalinsertion (profile) says:

Re: Perverted Intent

Cash flow > traffic flow for some, apparently.

It’s nice to have smart engineers working very hard on roadway design, monitoring and modelling traffic flow patterns, and making changes for safety and efficiency in the way we handle transportation and infrastructure (which is not exactly cheap either), only to have your local numbnuts anywhere arbitrarily change things to suit their whims.

I suppose as long as the increased revenue covers the cost of keeping police around for ticketing duty, and any increased emergency services usage and cleanup required when de-optimizing for safety, it’s all cool.

Anonymous Coward says:

What is weird to me is that, travelling that Stevenson corridor everyday (Stevenson @ 880 -> Stevenson @ Fremont Blvd), I maybe see someone “close” to going through (I’m assuming its those two since those intersections have cameras and the ones on Mowry only has it at Farwell). That said those junctions are fairly ‘short’. The yellow at Stevenson/Fremont is much shorter and that junction is much larger. Ive seen many more accidents there.

stine (profile) says:


Doesn’t the DoT have standards for light timing? When I learned to drive in the 1980’s, I learned to base my ‘do I stop’ decision on my vehicle(heavier=longer), speed(faster=longer), conditions(snow/water=longer) and distance from the intersection.

I found it:

It sure seems to me that any municipality or county who’s lights aren’t timed properly should lose federal, and state, funding.

DCL says:

Re: US DoT?

They were using DOT guidelines as the base article suggests but the issue that is debatable with ‘use the equation’ approach is that results get fuzzy when you choose what metric for the speed variable… the posted speed, the common speed, the ‘safe’ speed…. so many options!

I have no love of red-light cameras but the whole “it was a miscommunication” with some face-saving thrown in is not that far-fetched as it was not more widespread. Also a factor here is that there is a lot of construction and traffic mitgation projects in that area (there were major planning errors for the future traffic patterns when the freeways were constucted).

To me the key interest is what will the city do going forward… will they change the timing shorter and offer refunds like they suggested was a possiblity? I do live in the area and frequent those intersections.

I am sure this group’s hatred of the whole red-light camera concept will bias everyone for the worst possible outcome (that it was purely revenue based… which is still a possibility). The linked article (which is like this post is a rewrite/synopsis of the original story) seems biased against the city.

Color Me Gone says:

Just say No! to a whole lot of things

Having concluded that owning a car was just an excuse to be bled in fines, fees, confiscation, and/or an invitation to the Greybar Hotel for crooked license plate or a malfunctioning (fill in the blank), or even being murdered by morons not required to know or follow the law themselves, I walked away from it all.

Nothing like a change of lifestyle, occupation, residence/city. No car, phone, tv, none of that crap. Life is better, less stress. Nothing feels as good as simply turning it off and discovering more meaningful ways to expend the the sands of life flowing through the hour glass of meaningfullness.

Anonymous Coward says:

They have to be able to identify the driver, so one way is to place your sun visor in such a way where they cannot photograph your face.

If they cannot identify the driver, they cannot issue a citation.

In cities where they have revenue trap red light cameras, I adjust my sun visor in such a way where my face cannot be photographed, but where I can still see the road.

Jay Dee (profile) says:

A few thoughts

The Federal Highway Administration has their “Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices” which recommends traffic light settings.

File a complaint with the state attorney general. Short yellow lights are traffic hazards.

Cities have been successfully sued under RICO statutes.

Also, insurance companies have recovered damages from cities for creating traffic hazards.

James C. Walker (profile) says:

Re: A few thoughts

Unfortunately, the federal MUTCD is useless for yellow intervals. It says between 3 and 6 seconds and recommends basing it on slower or faster approach speeds. BUT – that part is a “should” recommendation – not a SHALL (must) requirement. The FHWA refuses to make realistic yellow intervals mandatory in the MUTCD, so for-profit red light camera traps with short yellows are allowed by the MUTCD. The National Motorists Association tried hard for 18 months to get this changed, but gave up after spending several thousand dollars attending engineers meetings where they refused to make correct and safer yellows mandatory.

James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

Wendy Cockcroft (user link) says:

Re: Re:

It seems that the only context Techdirt actually has is continuous hatred of abuse by the police and any form of abuse of authority.


Unless you believe that abuse is necessarily part and parcel of holding a position of authority, in which case I recommend taking remedial civics classes. As I told a friend last Sunday, "What, you really just naively believe what right-wing people tell you instead of checking things out??!"

jcwconsult (profile) says:

Red light camera rackets

“For undisclosed reasons, the city switched the yellow lights back to 4.7 seconds in November.”

The rea$on$ yellow$ $witched to 0.7 $econd$ $horter are ab$olutely obviou$, and tho$e rea$on$ do NOT include $afety. In earlier studies, adding 0.7 seconds to the yellows dropped the violation rate by over 70% and the reduction was permanent, not temporary as the predatory for-profit camera companies like Redflex and ATS falsely claim.

Fremont continues to do business with Redflex. There are now five guilty pleas or verdicts in federal Redflex related indictments for fraud, bribery or extortion. NO ONE should do business with Redflex, and perhaps it tells us more about Fremont’s insistence on keeping the predatory government-run money-grab racket of red light cameras in operation. The rea$on$ are obviou$ to all of u$.

James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

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