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The Yellow Menace

The police could make intersections safer with longer yellow lights. But the city wouldn't make any money that way. Part 2 in a series.

11:00 PM, Apr 1, 2002 • By MATT LABASH
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Part 2 in a 5 part series.

Part 1 Inside the District's Red Lights: Red-light cameras and photo radar are all over Washington--and coming to a city near you. The science behind them is bad and the police are using them to make money, not save lives. It's much worse than you thought.

OF ALL THE PEOPLE to curse for automated enforcement technology, the foremost is Maurice Gatsonides, a Dutch race car driver who invented the speed camera in the 1950s. Nicknamed "Gatso"-- the future name of the company that exported his technology around the world-Gatsonides engineered the camera to enhance his racing speed. Upon retiring however, he turned the technology on the rest of us, peddling his equipment to law enforcement agencies. By the time Gatsonides died in 1998, descending to the hottest part of Hell in the imaginations of many motorists, his technology had already taken hold in Europe.

The last several years, however, have seen an exponential boom in this country. The Department of Transportation estimates that red light cameras are now being used in 30 cities in 19 states (11 states have banned them). And although 75 countries use the more controversial photo radar, the United States reports approximately 17 such programs (7 out of 10 additional test programs were discontinued--often because of public ill-will). All of the current photo radar programs are being run west of the Mississippi, with the exception of D.C., whose example is encouraging East Coast police departments to eagerly consider it.

New York became the first city in this country to permanently operate red light cameras in 1993. Since then, the argument against them has been a fairly obvious one. Typically, some local columnist storms the barricades clutching his dog-eared Orwell or Huxley, screeching about an erosion of liberties, the government threatening our privacy, and on and on. To which one can almost feel readers stifling a collective yawn. Even if Americans should be concerned about the death-by-a-thousand-cuts privacy is suffering with spooky surveillance technologies like biometric face scanning, most long ago resigned themselves to being surveilled every time they gas their cars or buy Slim Jims at 7-Eleven. To some, automated enforcement technology is just a natural progression.

But recently the debate has shifted to address less abstract issues such as: Does the technology even work? Does it reduce accidents and safety risks, or cause more of its own? Are cities overstating a threat, overselling a technology, and undercutting more important safety countermeasures to gouge revenues out of their citizens? Rep. Dick Armey's answer to those questions was made abundantly clear in his recent report, titled--with jackhammer subtlety--"The Red Light Camera Scam."

Released last May, the report was met with ridicule by editorialists, many of whom suffer from the Armey Effect, dictating that if the relatively unpopular congressman is against something, they should be for it. What stretched the credulity of most critics was the implied assertion that cities were reducing their yellow-light intervals in order to entrap motorists with red light cameras--or "scameras," as detractors now call them. "You're full of it, sir," was one of the punditocracy's gentler admonitions.

But while critics were busy dismantling the most incendiary and least supportable charge in Armey's report, they missed a much more important point. Cities don't need to reduce yellow-light times to generate revenue, they merely have to plant cameras at intersections where short amber times foster red-light running. It's a more subtle assertion, but one that Armey's chief researcher, Richard Diamond, scrupulously documents. Study after study has shown that increasing yellow light intervals (the least expensive, if not most profitable, engineering fix) reduces the likelihood of motorist indecision in what engineers call "the dilemma zone"--the second or so it takes to react when encountering a changing light.

Historically, amber times have been set between three and six seconds, depending on a host of variables from the posted speed at an intersection to the grade of its approach.

The formula for these standards comes from a hodgepodge of recommendations by the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) and the Federal Highway Administration's "Manual on Traffic Control Devices." To give just an inkling of how things have changed over the years, in the mid '70s, the Institute of Transportation Engineers recommended a yellow time long enough to factor in reaction time plus stopping time plus "clearance time," or the time it takes to get through an intersection.