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Florida quietly shortened yellow light lengths, resulting in more red light camera tickets for you! May 22, 2013

Posted by TelUS Consulting Services in Social Media.
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A subtle, but significant tweak to Florida’s rules regarding traffic signals has allowed local cities and counties to shorten yellow light intervals, resulting in millions of dollars in additional red light camera fines.

A Tampa News department discovered the Florida Department of Transportation (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).

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. The investigation stemmed from a December discovery of a dangerously short yellow light in Hernando County. After the story aired, the county promised to re-time all of its intersections.

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.”

The National Motorists Association identifies itself as a grassroots group that’s been advocating for drivers since 1982. It fought the national 55 mph speed limit and is now campaigning against red light camera technology, contending the technology primarily targets safe drivers who are victims of short yellow lights or safely roll through right turns.

Proponents of the technology hang their hats on a reduction of serious accidents at RLC intersections. They also point out that every electronically generated violation is reviewed by a local police officer or sheriff’s deputy before a citation is validated and sent to a driver. But questions about the fairness and constitutionality of RLCs linger, with questionable motivations of the state’s yellow light reductions likely to add fuel to the fire.

FDOT CHANGES THE RULES

Yellow light times are calculated by a complex formula that takes into account variables such as the size of an intersection, the incline/decline of the roadway, driver reaction time, and deceleration rate. But ultimately, the proper intervals come down to a driver’s approach speed.

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 struck the “whichever is greater” language from its Traffic Engineering Manual (TEM), reducing minimum yellow light lengths and allowing communities to re-time their signals at RLC intersections.

A number of communities have shortened their already-safe intervals to the new minimums. In some cases, FDOT mandated longer yellow lights, but seemingly only at intersections that hadn’t been in compliance for years.  Around Greater Tampa Bay, the yellow interval reductions typically took place at RLC intersections and corridors filled with RLC cameras.

FDOT’s change in language may have been subtle, but the effects were quite significant. 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.

“I think it’s immoral to do that,” Walker said. “You’re basically punishing safe drivers with deliberately improper engineering. That’s not moral to me.”

But 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).

FDOT Traffic Operations engineer Mark Wilson said the agency was merely cleaning up language in its TEM to match federal guidelines. But 10 News found Florida’s rules were already in compliance with federal guidelines, and there are no federal suggestions discouraging the use of “whichever is greater.” FDOT is also ignoring numerous other federal guidelines (see below) that encourage longer yellow intervals.

 

SHORTER YELLOWS: WHO’S DOING IT?

FDOT’s revised TEM provides bare minimum yellow light intervals for RLC intersections, based on speed limit. While the formula can fluctuate if the approach grade isn’t flat, no consideration is mandated for drivers’ actual approach speed:

But local news crews found numerous communities using , or skirting, the minimums:

  • Port Richey, New Port Richey, and FDOT collaborated to reduce yellow light times along U.S. 19 from 4.5 seconds to the bare minimum, 4.3 seconds.
  • An FDOT analyst instructed New Port Richey to reduce its yellow light interval for the Main St. RLC (at U.S. 19) from 4.0 seconds to the bare minimum, 3.0 seconds.
  • Hillsborough County shortened the yellow interval on Bell Shoals Road (at Bloomingdale) in Valrico from 4.0 seconds to the bare minimum, 3.6 seconds.
  • Tampa has yellow lights below the state’s 4.0-second minimum for 45mph zones at Hillsborough/Nebraska and Adamo/50th. Those RLC intersections turn red after just 3.9 seconds; city engineers claim the complex yellow light formula allows them to go below the TEM minimums.
  • St. Petersburg had yellow intervals that were shorter than FDOT minimums, but alert resident Matt Florell pointed them out and the city fixed them. Florell said thousands of citations were issued inappropriately, while a city engineer said four intersections had slight “malfunctions,” where the yellow lights were only off by 0.1 seconds. Either way, ticketed drivers were not notified of the issues and no refunds were offered.
  • Oldsmar had a similar issue, where its intersection at Tampa Rd. and SR-580 (State St.) was improperly timed.  The yellow light was just 3.0 seconds instead of 4.3 seconds. When the problem was addressed last fall, citations plummeted by 90 percent. But no notices, or refunds, went out to ticketed drivers.

FDOT’s new rules didn’t shorten every RLC intersection’s yellow lights; many cities and counties had lights that were so far out of compliance the new minimums actually increased the intervals.  Tampa and Hillsborough County both increased some intersections in recent years, but most in their jurisdictions remain at the bare minimum.

St. Petersburg city councilman Charlie Gerdes has also been pushing his city to lengthen its yellow intervals, about half of which are at the state minimum, but Gerdes has had trouble getting the entire council to follow him on the issue.

So bottom line, our salaries have dropped, our home values plummeted and thus the counties tax revenues. have fallen. In order to live the way we are accustomed and to keep the healthy salaries of the county and state elected officials at their current levels, they have to get the money from someplace…why not from your driving habits. And remember that these traffic light tickets will affect your insurance rates….hmmm…conspiracy?

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