- The Washington Times - Friday, January 25, 2002

If the use of photo-radar and red-light cameras is really about improving traffic safety, then officials in Washington, Northern Virginia and Maryland ought to be eager to accept the challenge put forward by the National Motorists Association. The NMA, a grass-roots lobbying organization devoted to advancing motorists’ issues, argues that the simple expedient of slightly increasing yellow intervals (by a second or two) at traffic lights is far more effective at curbing red-light running than the use of red-light cameras.

In an open letter to regional governments, including the government of the District of Columbia, the NMA challenged area officials to adopt longer intervals for a test period: If the incidence of red-light running did not decline by at least 50 percent, the NMA Foundation would donate $10,000 to any traffic-safety program the locality wishes to fund. But if red-light running decreases, as NMA argues it will, the other end of the deal is that the use of automated cameras be ditched.

It’s not likely the NMA challenge will be accepted, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be. There is some extremely sound traffic safety engineering theory and practice behind the idea of longer yellow intervals. For example, in Fairfax County, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) increased the amount of time the traffic light at Route 50 and Fair Ridge Drive remains yellow by 1.5 seconds (5.5 seconds total from 4.0) last March. The result of this seemingly minor change decreased the number of red-light violations by a very impressive 96 percent.

The reason for the drop is simple: Most people don’t deliberately “run” red lights; they either lack enough time to stop safely before entering an intersection where the light changes too quickly from green to yellow to red, or are half-way through the intersection when the light turns from yellow to red. The increased yellow interval gives drivers more time to react and either stop safely before entering the intersection, or it allows them to safely transit the intersection before the light turns from yellow to red.

Unfortunately, exploiting motorists may be the higher priority here especially as local governments scrape for additional revenue in tight budgetary times. It’s easier to mulct motorists in the name of safety than it is to enact a tax increase.

NMA President James J. Baxter believes that “local governments are using photo enforcement to capitalize on their failures to install, maintain, and manage traffic control devices, notably traffic lights and speed limits” rather than take steps to correct these lapses. The result is a more harried driving experience, chaotic roads and a growing public perception that governments are simply out to line their pockets at motorists’ expense.

If all of this isn’t so, NMA has given camera boosters a wonderful opportunity to prove they’re right. Why not take the challenge? It would go a long way toward restoring public confidence in the fairness of what passes for traffic-safety enforcement these days.

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