- The Washington Times - Friday, May 25, 2001

Few traffic safety experts agree on how long a yellow light should stay yellow. But one thing is for certain — local governments are cashing in with red-light enforcement cameras that snap away when drivers get caught by a quick light.
"One of the difficulties we have here is that there is no clearly articulated set of standards that is known to the public," said Lon Anderson, a spokesman for the AAAs Mid-Atlantic Region. "[The red-light cameras] are a proven cash cow, and we all know that greed is a very strong element."
In the Washington area, the red-light cameras and the fines they generate have become a big part of municipal budgets. The District, for example, has taken in $11 million from 39 cameras since 1999. In Howard County, Md., more than 70,000 tickets were written between 1998 and 2000, bringing in more than $4 million in fines. Those figures will likely rise as more and more cameras come online, and as more governments turn to law enforcement as a way to balance the books. In Montgomery County, local officials recently asked that the fines for running a red light be raised from $75 to $250.
In "The Red Light Running Crisis: Is It Intentional?" — a report released this week by House Majority Leader Dick Armey — some traffic safety engineers contend the lack of uniform standards has gives local governments too much latitude on how to set the timing cycles for traffic signals. The Texas Republican says that latitude means some communities have put traffic fine revenue ahead of motorists safety, and hes called for congressional hearings on the matter.
According to the Armey report, the private Institute of Transportation Engineers started in 1985 to recommend reducing the duration of yellow lights at traffic signals from an average of five seconds to as little as three seconds.
The ITEs recommendations on traffic signals are followed almost verbatim by the Federal Highway Administration, which, in turn, serves as a general guide for localities. But there is no nationally accepted standard for yellow-light timing, and across the country, the duration can vary from five or six seconds to as little as three.
These short-cycling lights are causing crashes on the nations roadways, according to highway engineers like Peter S. Parsonson, professor of transportation at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He says municipalities need to be held to a national standard.
"This idea that 'We dont have to follow anything — this is an utterance you will hear from an engineer who just doesnt have any experience with his or her agency being sued," he said.
Mr. Parsonson has served nationally as an expert witness in scores of trials involving personal injury due to collisions, testifying on roadway design and operation, including traffic signals.
Accident reconstructionists doing a scientific analysis of a crash often find that yellow lights have been timed impossibly short, he said.
"There is such a thing as a yellow that is so short that the driver can neither stop comfortably at the stop line, nor clear the intersection without entering on the red signal," Mr. Parsonson said.
Yellow signals that are timed properly give drivers time to decide to either stop or proceed safely through an intersection. But at intersections where cars are going at least 35 mph, theres something called the "dilemma zone," or zone of indecision, where the driver has to decide whether to jam on the brakes or continue through the light.
For regulars who know the intersection, its not always a problem.
But with no accepted standards in place, drivers who dont travel through the intersection often have no way of knowing how long the yellow light will last.
A short stop may end in a rear-end collision from the driver behind. Trying to clear the intersection may result in a ticket or, worse, a right-angle collision.
Chuck Emick, a retired traffic engineer who lives near Atlanta, made it his hobby to travel around the country and look into the timing of traffic lights.
"What I see has happened over time is [the yellow light] has been reduced by nipping away a fraction of a second at a time by chipping pieces of the formula — that could mean your rate of braking has become an unreasonable 15 feet a second, which pretty much puts your nose up against your windshield," he said.
"What has also taken place is your perception-reaction time [has been reduced]… . It was a 2 1/2 second perception-reaction. The current technology is using one second," Mr. Emick said.
Richard Baier, Alexandrias director of transportation and environmental services, said he doesnt think federally imposed national standards would be a good idea.
Smaller cities and counties, he said, would suffer because they would be forced to adopt inefficient traffic signal standards that might be based on urban traffic patterns.
And setting longer yellow lights, he said, will only encourage more drivers to try to race through intersections.
"They begin to sneak through the signals," Mr. Baier said.
Richard Retting, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, said the timing of yellow lights is essential to maintaining the credibility of red-light cameras, which he says save lives and deter crashes.
Mr. Retting concedes that "there is some benefit when you increase the yellow timing," but he adds that his groups research shows shorter yellow lights can deter red light running, once persons in the community get used to it.

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