February 12, 2008
Red light camera rumors

I'm amused by this story, in which an intrepid Channel 2 reporter investigated various rumors and conspiracy theories regarding the red light cameras here, eventually concluding there's nothing to them. Not that this is likely to change anyone's mind, especially someone who was caught by a camera running a light.

Are the yellow lights long enough to give you a fair shot at getting through those intersections?

Steve Ivy says no.

"It doesn't give you enough time to stop your vehicle," Ivy told Local 2.

Cameras caught Ivy running the red light on FM 1960 at West Townsend in Humble. But Ivy believes he was shortchanged by a short yellow light.

"I realize as short as this time is, you can't stop in the amount of time it allows you before it turns red," explained Ivy.

That particular yellow light stays yellow for 3.6 seconds. The speed limit is 50 mph.

Ivy put those numbers into a Texas Department of Transportation formula that roughly recommends five seconds of yellow for an intersection with a speed limit of 50 mph, four seconds of yellow for 40 mph and so on.

"If they're not what they should be, they should be corrected," said Ivy.

Here's an alternate theory for you: Maybe he was speeding. Seems to me that however many red light runners the cameras catch, there's a lot more people who do manage to stop in time. One presumes a fair number of them are driving at (or more likely, a bit above) the posted speed limit. How is it they manage to stop in time? I'm just asking.

To put it another way: Everybody thinks they're an above-average driver, and nobody thinks they drive too fast. When those opinions bump up against an objective metric, it can be jarring. But that doesn't mean it's wrong.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on February 12, 2008 to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

For me, the telling lines from the article were these:

"But many of you asked us if cities shortened the yellow lights when they installed the red-light cameras. ... All of the yellow lights we checked time out the same now as they did before the red light cameras."

No doubt, the conspiracy theorists on the red-light camera issue, such as blogHouston, will find someway to criticize this (even, somehow, Sugarland for extending the yellow-light time -- which they've advocated for).

Increased yellow-light time along with red-light cameras increases safety. Who cares that it is a money-maker? Its making money off law-breakers (who should be happy it is just a fine; there are no criminal penalties or any effect on their 'right'[FN1] to drive).

[FN1] Its a privilege, actually.

Posted by: Mase on February 12, 2008 4:26 PM

There is such a thing as presumption of innocence, though.

Last fall before the red light cameras went up in Lubbock, one local news station (KCBD) timed the lights at the intersections where the cameras were being proposed.

Of the 9 intersections, 7 had yellow lights set in excess of one-half second too short by TXDOT's own formula. City traffic engineers verified that the lights were, in fact, too short.

Six months later, the city not only isn't making the bucks off red light cameras it was promised, it's $185K in the hole to the camera company. The council is voting to take the cameras down -- nobody's paying their tickets, the number of rear-end car crashes has gone up, and the number of injuries has not correspondingly gone down, as the camera proponents promised would happen.

Don't be so quick to think the driver's at fault alone here, is all I'm saying.

Posted by: The_Other_Sarah on February 12, 2008 5:40 PM

IIRC, the difference in the civil law that governs red lights and the criminal law, is that for you to get busted, the light has to turn red, any time that you are in the box. I think the criminal penalty is not that strict.

So if a yellow light is short, it has an effect on whether someone will get busted with the camera.

The bigger problem I have with the ordinance is that they are getting a ton of money from what are termed rolling stops. People don't know that the redlight cameras can bust them for that.

Rolling stops aren't quite the threat to public safety as running red lights, but I'm not sure how many people know how much revenue the city is generating through that part of their red light program.

Posted by: Steph on February 12, 2008 10:45 PM

Sarah - You are of course correct about the presumption of innocence, though red light camera violations are civil and not criminal. As I said, I'm just suggesting an alternate explanation to the one put forward by Mr. Ivy.

Steph - I believe you are mistaken. The text of SB1119, the bill that enabled red light cameras, says:

Sec. 707.002. AUTHORITY TO PROVIDE FOR CIVIL PENALTY. The governing body of a local authority by ordinance may implement a photographic traffic signal enforcement system and provide that the owner of a motor vehicle is liable to the local authority for a civil penalty if, while facing only a steady red signal displayed by an electrically operated traffic-control signal located in the local authority, the vehicle is operated in violation of the instructions of that traffic-control signal, as specified by Section 544.007(d).

Section 544.007(d) says:

(d) An operator of a vehicle facing only a steady red signal shall stop at a clearly marked stop line. In the absence of a stop line, the operator shall stop before entering the crosswalk on the near side of the intersection.

That sounds to me like it's saying SB1119 only applies in cases where the original law applied, which is to say for vehicles entering the intersection after the light has turned red. For sure, I'd expect the vocal camera opponents to have brought this up by now if that were not the case.

You're right we don't know how much revenue the city is getting from the cameras. But we do know that they are limited by SB1119 in how much they can charge for fines, and in how they can spend it.

Posted by: Charles Kuffner on February 13, 2008 6:00 AM

I was issued a ticket recently for 'running a red light' at one such intersection. I couldn't believe that I had done such a thing, and had to look at the website to actually see my vehicle "barreling through" same at the very high speed of 18 mph. I'd had plenty of time to stop, obviously ... what was I thinking?!

Posted by: Goldenrod on February 13, 2008 4:05 PM