Have you gotten a ticket for running a red light? If you think the 'warning' time of your yellow light ran out a bit too fast, you may be right. And you might be able to make that case in court.
Apparently, when state DOTs reduce the yellow light time, that fraction of a second produces more money for the state. Imagine that. In Florida the state raked in an extra $50 million in 2012 just by reducing yellow light times by less than half a second.
How did they do it? According to WTSP-TV's Noah Pransky, the FDOT quietly changed the state's policy on yellow intervals in 2011, reducing the minimum below federal recommendations. The rule change was followed by engineers, both from FDOT and local municipalities, collaborating to shorten the length of yellow lights at key intersections, specifically those with red light cameras (RLCs).
Pransky reported that while yellow light times were reduced by mere fractions of a second, research indicates a half-second reduction in the interval can double the number of RLC citations -- and the revenue they create.
Red light cameras generated more than $100 million in revenue last year in approximately 70 Florida communities, with 52.5 percent of the revenue going to the state. The rest is divided by cities, counties, and the camera companies. In 2013, the cameras are on pace to generate $120 million.
Red light cameras are a for-profit business between cities and camera companies and the state," said James Walker, executive director of the nonprofit National Motorists Association. "The (FDOT rule-change) was done, I believe, deliberately in order that more tickets would be given with yellows set deliberately too short."
To grease the wheels for this change the state had to do some interesting editing. When the Florida legislature approved 2010's Mark Wandell Act, regulating red light cameras across the state, FDOT had a long-standing rule that mandated yellow light calculations factor in either the posted speed limit or 85th percentile of drivers' actual speed -- whichever was greater. The point of the law was to calculate safe stopping times for the majority of drivers on any given roadway.
But in 2011, FDOT removed the key phrase --"whichever is greater"-- from its Traffic Engineering Manual (TEM), reducing minimum yellow light lengths and allowing communities to re-time their signals at RLC intersections. Presto! Like taking candy from a baby.
Pransky reported that the removal of three little words meant the reduction of yellow light intervals of up to a second, meaning drastically more citations for drivers. A 10 News analysis indicates the rule change is likely costing Florida drivers millions of dollars a year.
Numerous U.S. Dept. of Transportation (USDOT) documents provide guidance to municipalities on how to install and operate RLC intersections. But Pransky says FDOT and Florida communities are by-and-large ignoring those recommendations when it comes to yellow light intervals. The USDOT says that when yellow light times are lengthened, severe crashes drop.
USDOT also recommends an extra half-second of yellow time at intersections with lots of trucks or elderly drivers to allow them to react safely. And despite the fact that WTSP's audience (Greater Tampa Bay) is home to five of the nation's 12 oldest counties (by median age), it's also home to some of the shortest yellow lights.
In many areas Florida changed the yellow lights from 4.5 seconds to 4.3 seconds. What could possibly go wrong?
FDOT claims it had no financial motive to shorten yellow lights; the agency doesn't receive any direct payments from RLC fines. The state's portion of each $158 citation is split between its General Revenue Fund ($70), the Department of Health Administrative Trust Fund ($10), and Spinal Cord Injury Trust Fund ($3).
Is anyone reminded now of that scene from Casablanca when Capt. Renault (Claude Reins) says "I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here."
And the croupier approaches... "Your winnings, sir."
Bottom line: If you've received a red-light ticket recently, it might be worthwhile to learn whether your municipality reduced the yellow light time. You have a right to know.
Here's the WTSP story:
WTSP: FL reduces yellow-light duration
And for those of you in Florida, good news: FDOT spokesman Dick Kane says that "Based on 2012 national research, the department is considering increasing the minimum yellow clearance times by an additional 0.4 seconds (PRT Value from 1.0 to 1.4 seconds) to better accommodate the reaction times of Florida drivers.