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.