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.


Reader Comments

The First Word

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Time | Thread


  • icon
    Ninja (profile), 2 Mar 2017 @ 8:15am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      timmaguire42 (profile), 2 Mar 2017 @ 10:33am

      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.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        orbitalinsertion (profile), 2 Mar 2017 @ 12:25pm

        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.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        John85851 (profile), 6 Mar 2017 @ 3:45pm

        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!

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 2 Mar 2017 @ 4:29pm

      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".

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      The Wanderer (profile), 3 Mar 2017 @ 4:28am

      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.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      jcwconsult (profile), 4 Mar 2017 @ 6:47am

      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

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile), 2 Mar 2017 @ 8:27am

    Perverted Intent

    I realize in that in in the eyes of those working on improving cash flow that this is a stupid question, but what do these changes have to do with traffic flow? I mean, that is the point of stop lights, isn't it? Unless your income depends on it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      orbitalinsertion (profile), 2 Mar 2017 @ 12:34pm

      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.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    DC Pathogen, 2 Mar 2017 @ 9:51am

    Profit over safty?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 2 Mar 2017 @ 10:18am

    Larsen needs a firing !

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Pixelation, 2 Mar 2017 @ 10:21am

    Follow the money

    They need to investigate the intern to find the kickback he got.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 2 Mar 2017 @ 10:22am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 2 Mar 2017 @ 10:29am

    If they throw the intern under the bus do the traffic cameras see it?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    stine, 2 Mar 2017 @ 10:43am

    US DoT?

    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: https://ops.fhwa.dot.gov/publications/fhwahop08024/chapter5.htm

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

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      DCL, 2 Mar 2017 @ 11:38am

      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.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Aaron Walkhouse (profile), 2 Mar 2017 @ 4:46pm

      5.3.2 explicitly bows to state authority, and those are not
      laws on that page, but principles for planning purposes.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Color Me Gone, 2 Mar 2017 @ 11:00am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Henry Heigh, 2 Mar 2017 @ 12:14pm

    Here's the source docs

    Love this article, but if you're someone who needs to see proof, the source docs are on the Fremont page at highwayrobbery [dot] net.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 2 Mar 2017 @ 12:39pm

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Jay Dee, 2 Mar 2017 @ 5:01pm

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      James C. Walker, 6 Mar 2017 @ 10:38am

      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

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    anti-antidirt (profile), 2 Mar 2017 @ 6:00pm

    We need to stop fattening the pockets of these broken cities.

    Also, I invented email.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    My_Name_Here, 2 Mar 2017 @ 7:12pm

    Context is everything.

    It seems that the only context Techdirt wants to have is continuous hatred of the police and any form of authority.

    I will celebrate when this website is gone.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 3 Mar 2017 @ 5:13am

      Re:

      Thank you for your input, regardless of its value.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 3 Mar 2017 @ 5:17am

      Re:

      Thank you for your contribution to the discussion.

      "I will celebrate when this website is gone."

      Please note, nobody is forcing you to read articles on this site.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Wendy Cockcroft, 3 Mar 2017 @ 6:10am

      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.

      FIFY

      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??!"

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    jcwconsult (profile), 4 Mar 2017 @ 6:43am

    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

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Bill Costa (profile), 6 Mar 2017 @ 9:51am

    Better start thinking now about creating a new revenue stream...

    After all, with the rise of the self driving car, won't traffic violations eventually be a thing of the past? Now is not to early to start thinking about how to create the next new municipal tax that doesn't look like a tax.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here
Get Techdirt’s Daily Email
Use markdown for basic formatting. HTML is no longer supported.
  Save me a cookie
Follow Techdirt
Special Affiliate Offer

Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Techdirt Insider Chat
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Recent Stories

Close

Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.