Seeing Yellow… But Not For Very Long

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Ever get the feeling that traffic lights stay yellow for shorter intervals than they used to?

Turns out, you’re not imagining it.

Yellow intervals have been shortened at traffic lights in many areas around the country, courtesy of the government officials responsible for writing national transportation guidelines. Some signals stay yellow only about 70 percent as long as they did 15 years ago. And here’s a curious thing: The change in signal timing intervals coincides with the much-discussed rise in the incidence of red light-running.

Put another way, more people are getting caught in the middle of an intersection after the light has changed from yellow to red. Is it a coincidence that decreased yellow timing and “red light running” track together?

Certainly, there are people who deliberately run red lights – irrespective of the yellow interval. These are the jerks who enter an intersection when the light is already red. But the majority are people who entered the intersection when the light was still yellow – but didn’t get through before it cycled to red. Many probably decided that they could not come to a stop safely (and without risking being rear-ended by the car behind them) before the light transitioned from yellow to red.

So they keep on going – because of the shortened yellow interval, which gives them neither time to stop safely nor enough time to clear the intersection before the light changes.

They “run” the light.

And, if there’s a camera around, they’ll get a ticket in the mail a week or so later.

But does short-sheeting yellow intervals improve safety – or just the county’s revenue stream?

Given that there’s a delay before the opposing traffic gets a green light, cars entering the intersection on yellow (but going red before they clear it) will get through the intersection before there’s a safety issue.

But there is a monetary issue – and it’s the key to understanding the eagerness with which so many county and state governments have embraced red light cameras.

Shorter yellow intervals tracks with the adoption of automated red light camera enforcement systems – which have become money-fountains for state and local governments that use this technology – as well as for the private companies that typically share in the “revenue” collected. The government of the District of Columbia, for example, has estimated that it will take in some $16 million dollars annually via red light camera enforcement.

A pretty good scam, eh?

But it’s not making the roads any safer.

Restoring longer yellow intervals would do much more to address the manufactured “crisis” of red light-running than setting up red light cameras – and it would do the job without fleecing motorists and placing us all under the unblinking eye of constant government surveillance.

Example: When the city of Mesa, Arizona, added about a second of yellow time to traffic lights at several intersections, there was a 73 percent reduction in red light entries – and a major drop in accidents. The city subsequently ditched the automated cameras it has used previously to monitor the intersection and (of course) send out automated tickets for red light running.

As with the loathsome 55-mph “National Maximum Speed Limit” – which morphed from a supposed energy-saving policy into a “safety” issue the moment it became clear there was a fortune to be mined in the form of “speeding” tickets, the red light-running “crisis” is about money and government power – period.

Just as returning to higher lawful speed limits did not make the roads any less “safe” (accident and fatality rates have gone down following repeal of the 55-mph limit in 1995) adding a second or more to the time a light stays yellow could very likely put a bigger dent in the problem of “red light running” than erecting ticket-spewing cameras at every intersection.

But the former won’t put any cash in the hands of government or the insurance cartel – while the latter is guaranteed to.

Guess which one the Clovers will support?

Throw it in the Woods?

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33 COMMENTS

  1. If you are already in the intersection, when the light turns red, you have the right of way, and are not running the red light.
    Also, you do NOT have to pay red light camera tickets. They are considered a civil matter, and the city must serve you papers to take you to court in order to collect, which the city will NOT take the expense and trouble to do. The city just counts on the people that think they have to pay these “tickets in the mail.” This is why I wish that they had NOT voted out the red light cameras in Arlington, TX, because the people that did not know they did not have to pay the tickets were providing the city funds by paying them. Now they will get those funds another way, and it might be a way that I have to pay for.

    • Depends on the state. Some (maybe all) states have these ‘civil penalties’ tied to DL’s and more. So don’t pay the rlc ticket then one’s DL gets suspended then whatever cascade of events occurs until one is at the side of the road with a cop who escalates the situation and then well we all know what happens from there.

  2. Here in Oz we can at least get away with running red lights if we can show we entered the intersection on green or yellow. All RLCams here take at least 2 photos. Trouble is, they make you pay 8 bucks or so to print out the photos for ya, THEN you have to be there in person to collect. Major headache.

    Last cop that tried to get me for running a red failed. I told him I entered the intersection on yellow and that I never do emergency stops for amber lights, period.

  3. The length of the yellow phase should be a function of the posted speed limit, so the lights behave predictably from the perception of a driver, and you don’t need a panic stop (as babydriver noted above). I’ve seen a formula before, but I’m not sure it it is part of the MUTCD or just something that contractors and traffic engineers used informally.

    • Watch that video posted above. The contractors and engineers only formula of interest is set right where marginal revenue equals marginal cost.

      • Yup, like asset forfeiture, the prospect of loot supersedes any real rationale.


        • Ah, but that (money) is the rationale!

          The (so-callled) “war on drugs” is enormously profitable; without it, state and local governments would lose a major source of their funding (including “free” vehicles).

          Traffic enforcement is based on the same principle.

          If not, why are red light/speed cameras not erected on a pay-as-you-go (vs. for-profit) basis? One can make an argument that fines are necessary to cover the costs of the equipment (leaving aside for the moment the question of the fairness of these devices). But what argument is there for using these devices to generate millions of dollars in pure profit – half of it usually going to a a private company?

  4. Hi, Here is a letter I wrote to the local newspaper. Got zero action on it.:

    Coeur d’Alene Press Letter To The Editor:

    I write this letter to the editor hoping that it will reach the eyes of whichever authority has jurisdiction over the traffic signals at the 95-Prairie intersection. Surely I am not the only one who thinks this issue needs addressing. It has to do with the length of time the signals show yellow before they change to red.

    Traveling south on US 95 at the Prairie Ave. intersection: The yellow signal lasts approximately four seconds. I timed it for five cycles. The times ranged between 3.46and 3.88 seconds.

    In four seconds a car moving at the posted speed limit (45 MPH) travels 264 feet, 66 feet per second.

    According to the Idaho Driver’s Handbook: At 45 MPH it takes 101.5 feet to react to the light changing.

    It takes an additional 114 feet to bring the car to a stop. A quote from the handbook: “Total minimum stopping distances with perfect 4-wheel brakes on the best type of road surface under favorable conditions.”

    I wish to point out that for all intents and purposes, the 215.5 feet allotted amounts to a panic stop, and not the type of stopping drivers should be faced with in normally reacting to traffic signals.

    The 101.5 reaction distance does not factor in the judgment time necessary to calculate your distance from the limit line, weather factoring, whether the stop can be made safely or any other of the multitude of calculations necessary to safely stop the vehicle. The allotted 101.5 feet only provides for the reaction time for a panic stop. The 114 feet stopping distance applies only to a panic stop.

    The foregoing indicates that four seconds is an insufficient amount of time to bring a car to a safe stop if the car is 264 feet or nearer to the intersection when the car is traveling at the posted speed limit of 45 MPH. Even one additional second or five seconds total would be a vast improvement.

    JAY BARBIERI
    Dalton Gardens

    • How long ago did you send it? Very nice, easy to understand, write-up. Since I’ve read this article I have no choice but to pay closer attention to yellow lights. It’s madness!

      P.S. I passed six clovers at once tonight on a back road. The road has those “Your Speed is ___” contraptions all the way down it. Boy I can’t wait to put my EPAUTOS.COM sticker I just got in the mail on my car. Just imagine all the pissed off clovers that will be visiting this site because the plug and looking to complain.

    • Figures!

      Years ago, after wasting an entire Saturday at one of those DMV “driving schools” the court sends you to in lieu of a traffic ticket – where you spend all day listening to tired cant about how “speed kills” and about the immutable perfection of all traffic laws and how cops are just there to protect us – we were given the opportunity to write an anonymous critique of the class.

      That moment when I turned in my rant was the highlight of the day.

  5. Eric, you are certainly on the side of the angels. The cameras are a dangerous money-raising scam, and many municipalities have indeed shortened yellow lights. But if you check the Virginia code, you will find that, as in other states, it is perfectly legal to enter an intersection on yellow. The cameras only ticket you if you enter on red.

  6. I believe there is certainly some validity to your article. I have noticed this in SW Louisiana and on a road where the speed limit is 50 the yellow light has been shortened to the point of being dangerous. The danger you did not mention is the guy hitting on the brakes (that’s what it takes when going 50 and then trying to stop in a shorter amount of time) trying to not run the red light because they have learned the yellow light is shorter while the driver behind does not slow down quick enough and plows into the back of you. I always enjoy your articles.

  7. Hi Eric,
    I enjoyed your article but this is about a memory of mine from 1972 and 1973.
    I was in the last year of my Army service living in San Rafael and working near San Francisco. My wife (at that time) had a job teaching in the City (San Francisco).
    We had one car, and on my day’s off (I worked many days 24 on and 24 off) I would drive her to work through Golden Gate Park.
    There was a behavior that I witnessed with (probably) most drivers responding to yellow/red lights (generally only in Golden Gate Park) that caused me to coin the term “California Green”. “California Green” was the 5 to 10 seconds that drivers would continue to drive at the speed they had been going before the light turned red and proceed right through the intersection. Drivers waiting for their turn to proceed through the intersection on the cross street seemed to recognize and expect this behavior. I never saw any close calls, as it seemed to be accepted behavior.
    I haven’t thought about that in years until I read your piece this morning.
    Have a great day.

  8. It is simple really. NOTHING the Government ever does is for the benefit of YOU the citizen. It is ALWAYS for the benefit of the Government. If they tell you otherwise, they are lying.

    • It’s a simple lesson, but Americans have forgotten it: Government is coercion. It is not reason or kindness. It is an essentially negative thing. It cannot give without first taking. It cannot help with first harming.

  9. Eric is right on the money (pun intended) as usual. Red light cameras have NEVER been about safety, they are ALWAYS about revenue. Simply adding time to the yellows will reduce the violation and crash rates by MORE than a ticket camera program. Cities that use cameras instead of safer longer yellows maliciously and deliberately trade off lower safety for more ticket revenue. The science is on our website. James C. Walker, National Motorists Association, http://www.motorists.org, Ann Arbor, MI

    • You wouldn’t be the same “JCW” that once participated in r.a.d on usenet? If so, nice to see you again. Eric, if it’s who I think it is he has a wealth of knowledge on these subjects. I learned a lot from his posts and cites many years ago.

  10. For those who want to know more I recommend the research sections at thenewspaper.com and motorists.org. The scam is worse and more involved than Eric describes.

    The current hotness with RLC companies is to cherry pick the intersections with the shortest yellows, this way they can’t be accused of just shortening them as they did in the past. But the real secret in the sauce in the guidelines (MUTCD & ITE) is the “clearance interval” which is yellow+all red. Entry on all-red is still a violation so the yellow is shortened and the all red increased.

    Back in the 1970s the first thing to do if there was too much red light running was to go to a longer yellow. It worked. It still works. When courts or state legislatures have required longer yellows at RLC intersections the cameras were removed as unprofitable shortly there after.

    The red light cameras are a model for much of what government does. Create a problem and then implement a solution good for government or those close to it. It is used over and over again for things both big and small.

    • This goes right to the heart of the very nature of coercive government. Its incentive structure. Government does not benefit when problems are solved, only when problems increase. Look at healthcare, education, poverty, the war on drugs, etc. In all these instances the goal was to improve the access to healthcare, education, or relieve poverty or stop drug abuse. But look what happened. Higher prices, more poverty, more drug use and greater crime. With the ever expanding scope of these problems, government power steadily increases. If you where a sociopath and had the slightest intelligence, it would be easy to see that there is no incentive to solve any problem that ever exist. Government has been around for millenia, and yet war, poverty, vice, theft, rape, etc. still exist. The only way any of this will be solved is when the mass of humanity stops their love affair with the state. Until then, the continued loss of freedom should be the rule not the exception.

      • Indeed.

        You mention the “war on drugs” (just one of the government’s many, many “wars” – which are actually wars against human liberty). It is perhaps the most egregious because it’s so obviously fraudulent – and vicious. But most Americans are either too dull-witted, too propagandized or too easily led astray by their own moralistic fetishes to see it. And see through it. The “war on terror” is merely the latest such.

        And we can thank the Clovers for all of it.

        • Clovers will never understand the beauty of Common Law:

          Do no harm to any person’s life, liberty or property.

          Nothing else is required.

      • Well said, Edward!
        Remember the acronym P.R.S.–Problem, Reaction, Solution.
        Government creates a problem, the populace reacts, and they implement a “solution”–which was their plan in the first place long before the “problem”.

        Works every time, too; Clover buys it time and again.

        And it seems the bigger the lie, the greater the buy-in: witness 9/11.

      • Oh, but they do understand!

        They understand there’s lots of money to be made via proxy taxes – and control to be exerted over the populace. Two things government (Clovers) can’t get enough of!

  11. Great find Eric. It would be great to have access to the data showing the 30% decrease in yellow time, that could be used in courts I’d guess. I move horses and I’ve noticed differences in yellow light time but like you say, I always thought it was my imagination. Thing is, Soccer Moms would get on this bandwagon too. Anybody moving live cargo gets concerned when those warnings get shorter. We really do pay attention to them because stomping on the brakes can get our animals (or our children) killed.

    • I discussed this issue with reporters at my local newspaper where I worked years ago.

      Turns out that the companies running the cameras have an iron clad contract with the cities. In the contract it states the time that the yellow light is allowed to remain on. I believe at the time the maximum was 3.5 seconds.

      Not only are they in it with the government, they are specifying the situation to maximize the problem!

      I think newspapers had legal issues with attempting to publish and expose this fraud.

      Here is a formula from the State Highway patrol. For every 10 miles an hour, you should have at least one car length between you and the person in front of you. That means that if you are doing 35 miles an hour in a municipal area you should have 3.5 car lengths between you and the person in front of you. For argument’s sake, let us call that 10 feet though it is often more. That means you have to have 3.5 x 10 feet in order to stop properly at a light. So if you are 35 feet from a light you cannot stop in time to meet a suddenly red light. Add 2.5 seconds for an average person to react and you have no less than 5 seconds minimum to react to a suddenly changing light. Yes, that is a cause of accidents as people run red lights.

      Dave Webb
      lordbasil1@sbcglobal.net

      • What you have just said is that we must anticipate that the light is about to change.
        This means we cannot do the speed limit – which is ALSO a ticketable offense.

        I stick by my original conclusion: the only good enforcer is dead – and we need to assist them in achieving “Good” status.
        Winter has come for us…

  12. I think it would make more sense to just have a traffic fine lottery. Skip all the BS and just randomly send people a ticket in the mail. Thank you have a nice day!

    • My Uncle lived in Mexico. When I was a kid, I visited him a few times. The whole country runs on bribes. Which we do, too, of course. But over there, it’s more honest corruption. The average guy has access to the “system.” A cop pulls you over, you hand him a $20. Done deal. Gracias, senor. No paperwork, no BS. Just gibs muh a dollah….

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