Imperative to right a wrong on red-light cameras

September 5, 2013 

Critics of red-light cameras have long claimed that the length of the yellow warning signal is pivotal to avoiding a citation and to safety. The issue surfaces anew after Manatee County commissioners quizzed traffic management staff and enforcement officers last week about yellow intervals after a barrage of questions from residents.

Those community concerns have merit.

In late May, the Florida Department of Transportation altered state rules by requiring yellow traffic signals on state roads with cameras be extended by 0.4 seconds by the end of this year and all other state road intersections in 2015.

The new stipulation, issued to traffic control managers, revokes a 2011 policy that allowed cities and counties to reduce yellow light intervals below the minimum federal recommendation. That now voided policy followed the 2010 enactment of the Mark Wandall Traffic Safety Act, which gave local governments permission to install red light cameras.

A number of local governments took advantage of the 2011 policy, Tampa Bay 10 News investigator Noah Pransky reported in mid-May. With shorter yellow lights over the past two years, cities, counties and the state collected millions in additional fines, the station found. That report aired two weeks before FDOT -- under pressure and embarrassed, no doubt -- rescinded the policy.

In effect, FDOT's 2011 policy gave local governments the green light to deliberately violate federal standards in order to collect more revenue from the $158 fine that red-light cameras generate with each citation.

The Texas Transportation Institute found an extra second of yellow above the minimum standard recommended by the Institute of Transportation Engineers reduced red-light violations by 53 percent. TTI's 2004 study also concluded that safety improved, too, with collisions attributable to the signal adjustment dropping by 40 percent.

In addition, shorter yellow intervals increase crash rates, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration.

Yellow intervals vary, determined by such factors as size of the intersection, approaching speeds and deceleration rates among them. Engineers then calculate safe stopping times for most motorists and set the yellow.

We remain ardent supporters of the Mark Wandall Act, named after the Manatee County resident who lost his life to a motorist speeding through a red light at State Road 70 and Tara Boulevard near his home. His widow, Melissa Wandall, lobbied the Legislature for years before securing passage in 2010.

While the yellow interval issue is troubling, the cameras are changing the behavior of motorists as intended -- and as indicated by the steep decline in the number of red-light infractions. Manatee County only began installing cameras last October, totaling 1,297 citations in November and only 255 in April at the four intersections with the devices. The county is expanding the program.

With fewer drivers speeding through red lights, blameless motorists are less likely to face serious injuries and death from T-bone crashes.

The City of Bradenton began deploying red-light cameras several years ago, with six intersections currently monitored.

The Legislature tweaked the law this year to ban citations for a right-on-red violation if the driver came to a complete stop -- even beyond the stop line. A new appeals process fairer to motorists is another positive development.

FDOT's misguided policy on shortening yellow intervals only lends credence to the contention that the cameras are primarily a cash cow for revenue-starved governments. Unfortunately, that obscures the greater good the cameras are securing -- by enhancing public safety.

Gaming the system with short yellow intervals is entirely unacceptable. The City of Bradenton and Manatee County should hold traffic engineers accountable for ensuring yellow times follow federal safety recommendations and the new FDOT policy.

Motorists should not have to face unjust penalties.

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