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TAMPA BAY, Fla. -- A subtle, but significant tweak to Florida's rules regarding traffic signals has allowed local cities and counties to shorten yellow light intervals, resulting in millions of dollars in additional red light camera fines.
The 10 News Investigators discovered the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) quietly changed the state's policy on yellow intervals in 2011, reducing the minimum below federal recommendations. The rule change was followed by engineers, both from FDOT and local municipalities, collaborating to shorten the length of yellow lights at key intersections, specifically those with red light cameras (RLCs).
TIMELINE: 10 News' Short Yellows Investigation
UPDATE: FDOT announces change to lights statewide
MAP: Short yellows in your neighborhood
While yellow light times were reduced by mere fractions of a second, research indicates a half-second reduction in the interval can double the number of RLC citations -- and the revenue they create. The 10 News investigation stemmed from a December discovery of a dangerously short yellow light in Hernando County. After the story aired, the county promised to re-time all of its intersections, and the 10 News Investigators promised to dig into yellow light timing all across Tampa Bay.
Red light cameras generated more than $100 million in revenue last year in approximately 70 Florida communities, with 52.5 percent of the revenue going to the state. The rest is divided by cities, counties, and the camera companies. In 2013, the cameras are on pace to generate $120 million.
"Red light cameras are a for-profit business between cities and camera companies and the state," said James Walker, executive director of the nonprofit National Motorists Association. "The (FDOT rule-change) was done, I believe, deliberately in order that more tickets would be given with yellows set deliberately too short."
The National Motorists Association identifies itself as a grassroots group that's been advocating for drivers since 1982. It fought the national 55 mph speed limit and is now campaigning against red light camera technology, contending the technology primarily targets safe drivers who are victims of short yellow lights or safely roll through right turns.
Proponents of the technology hang their hats on a reduction of serious accidents at RLC intersections. They also point out that every electronically generated violation is reviewed by a local police officer or sheriff's deputy before a citation is validated and sent to a driver. But questions about the fairness and constitutionality of RLCs linger, with questionable motivations of the state's yellow light reductions likely to add fuel to the fire.
FDOT CHANGES THE RULES
Yellow light times are calculated by a complex formula that takes into account variables such as the size of an intersection, the incline/decline of the roadway, driver reaction time, and deceleration rate. But ultimately, the proper intervals come down to a driver's approach speed.
When the Florida legislature approved 2010's Mark Wandell Act, regulating red light cameras across the state, FDOT had a long-standing rule that mandated yellow light calculations factor in either the posted speed limit or 85th percentile of drivers' actual speed -- whichever was greater. The point of the law was to calculate safe stopping times for the majority of drivers on any given roadway.
But in 2011, FDOT struck the "whichever is greater" language from its Traffic Engineering Manual (TEM), reducing minimum yellow light lengths and allowing communities to re-time their signals at RLC intersections.
The 10 News Investigators found a number of communities shortened their already-safe intervals to the new minimums. In some cases, FDOT mandated longer yellow lights, but seemingly only at intersections that hadn't been in compliance for years. Around Greater Tampa Bay, the yellow interval reductions typically took place at RLC intersections and corridors filled with RLC cameras.
FDOT's change in language may have been subtle, but the effects were quite significant. The removal of three little words meant the reduction of yellow light intervals of up to a second, meaning drastically more citations for drivers. A 10 News analysis indicates the rule change is likely costing Florida drivers millions of dollars a year.
"I think it's immoral to do that," Walker said. "You're basically punishing safe drivers with deliberately improper engineering. That's not moral to me."
But FDOT claims it had no financial motive to shorten yellow lights; the agency doesn't receive any direct payments from RLC fines. The state's portion of each $158 citation is split between its General Revenue Fund ($70), the Department of Health Administrative Trust Fund ($10), and Spinal Cord Injury Trust Fund ($3).
FDOT Traffic Operations engineer Mark Wilson said the agency was merely cleaning up language in its TEM to match federal guidelines. But 10 News found Florida's rules were already in compliance with federal guidelines, and there are no federal suggestions discouraging the use of "whichever is greater." FDOT is also ignoring numerous other federal guidelines (see below) that encourage longer yellow intervals.
The 10 News Investigators showed Wilson the emails from FDOT engineers in Tampa Bay, obtained through public records requests, instructing Pasco County officials in February 2012 to reduce the yellow light intervals on U.S. 19 from the already-short 4.5 seconds to the bare minimum 4.3 seconds. Wilson said he was not aware of the instructions and the engineer, who has since retired, misunderstood the purpose of the rule change.
"Those are (only) minimums. So some of the engineers said, 'Well, it's got to be that exact number.' That's not true. It has to be at least that number," Wilson said.
Wilson added that original language of the Mark Wandell Act required communities to perform engineering studies before installing RLCs, in order to comply with federal recommendations and determine drivers' actual approach speeds. But the requirement never made it into the final bill, allowing communities to install RLCs without any consideration of drivers' actual speed or the time it would take them to stop safely.
FLORIDA IGNORING NATIONAL STANDARDS, OPTING FOR SHORTER YELLOWS
Numerous U.S. Dept. of Transportation (USDOT) documents provide guidance to municipalities on how to install and operate RLC intersections. But FDOT and Florida communities are by-and-large ignoring those recommendations when it comes to yellow light intervals.
A USDOT/Federal Highway Administration (FHA) report said cities should not use speed limit in the yellow interval equation because it results "in more red light violations and higher crash rates." And if drivers' average speeds cannot be calculated, it's recommended engineers use the "speed limit plus 10 mph" variable to producing more conservative, and safer, yellow intervals.
Another report stresses the importance of using 85th percentile speed to calculate yellow intervals, while slide 28 on this report indicates when yellow light times are lengthened, severe crashes drop.
USDOT also recommends an extra half-second of yellow time at intersections with lots of trucks or elderly drivers to allow them to react safely. And despite the fact that Greater Tampa Bay is home to five of the nation's 12 oldest counties (by median age), it's also home to some of the shortest yellow lights.
"I'm not a law-breaker," said Pasco County retiree Shirley Nagle, who got a red light violation on U.S. 19 after more than five decades without a traffic citation.
Nagle entered the RLC intersection about half a second too late in February, and was issued a $158 ticket, which soon became a $262 fine after she didn't pay it immediately. She told 10 News that she spent 32 years working in the New Jersey courts system and would never break the law. She was just proceeding through the intersection because she thought it was the safest option for her.
"It's terrible," she said of Port Richey's RLCs and short yellow lights. "I think they're cheating the people!"
Wilson told 10 News that FDOT would likely approve any city's request to add a half-second to yellow light times to allow older drivers more time to react and safely stop, but none have.
Wilson also says FDOT is in the process of increasing the "Perception Reaction Time" variable in its statewide yellow light formulas from 1.0 to 1.3 seconds. That would add the 1/3 of a second to yellow light intervals statewide, to better accommodate Florida drivers.
SHORTER YELLOWS: WHO'S DOING IT?
FDOT's revised TEM provides bare minimum yellow light intervals for RLC intersections, based on speed limit. While the formula can fluctuate if the approach grade isn't flat, no consideration is mandated for drivers' actual approach speed:
But 10 News found numerous communities using , or skirting, the minimums:
- Port Richey, New Port Richey, and FDOT collaborated to reduce yellow light times along U.S. 19 from 4.5 seconds to the bare minimum, 4.3 seconds.
- An FDOT analyst instructed New Port Richey to reduce its yellow light interval for the Main St. RLC (at U.S. 19) from 4.0 seconds to the bare minimum, 3.0 seconds.
- Hillsborough County shortened the yellow interval on Bell Shoals Road (at Bloomingdale) in Valrico from 4.0 seconds to the bare minimum, 3.6 seconds.
- Tampa has yellow lights below the state's 4.0-second minimum for 45mph zones at Hillsborough/Nebraska and Adamo/50th. Those RLC intersections turn red after just 3.9 seconds; city engineers claim the complex yellow light formula allows them to go below the TEM minimums.
- St. Petersburg had yellow intervals that were shorter than FDOT minimums, but alert resident Matt Florell pointed them out and the city fixed them. Florell said thousands of citations were issued inappropriately, while a city engineer said four intersections had slight "malfunctions," where the yellow lights were only off by 0.1 seconds. Either way, ticketed drivers were not notified of the issues and no refunds were offered.
- Oldsmar had a similar issue, where its intersection at Tampa Rd. and SR-580 (State St.) was improperly timed. The yellow light was just 3.0 seconds instead of 4.3 seconds. When the problem was addressed last fall, citations plummeted by 90 percent. But no notices, or refunds, went out to ticketed drivers.
FDOT's new rules didn't shorten every RLC intersection's yellow lights; many cities and counties had lights that were so far out of compliance the new minimums actually increased the intervals. Tampa and Hillsborough County both increased some intersections in recent years, but most in their jurisdictions remain at the bare minimum.
St. Petersburg city councilman Charlie Gerdes has also been pushing his city to lengthen its yellow intervals, about half of which are at the state minimum, but Gerdes has had trouble getting the entire council to follow him on the issue.
RED LIGHT CAMERA SAFETY
Although RLC critics dispute it, 10 News found a bevy of data that suggests the technology changes drivers' behavior and reduces serious crash rates. And everywhere new RLC programs start generating revenue for cities, the elected leaders behind the program tout its safety benefits.
But there are few tangible safety benefits to short yellow lights. In fact, they appear to have the opposite effects; according to the USDOT and FHA, short yellow lights raise crash rates.
"A one second increase in yellow time results in 40 percent decrease in severe red light related crashes," the report said.
Jim Walker said shortening a driver's window for reacting to a yellow light creates more difficult split-second decisions, which can lead to more rear end collisions too. And he contends most serious accidents aren't coming from the "innocent driver" who gets caught by a short yellow. They're caused by blatant red light runners who will run a light regardless of yellow light length.
But Charles Territo, spokesperson for American Traffic Solutions (ATS), one of the country's largest red light camera operators, said there is no need to extend yellow light lengths since "innocent red light runners" don't exist.
"I think that's probably an oxymoron," Territo said. "There is (no) such thing as safely running a red light."
Territo said RLCs have made intersections safer for non-motorists too. Florida cities routinely top national lists for "worst cities" for pedestrian and bicycle safety.
Territo contends adding length to yellow lights may have a short-term benefit, but points to research that suggests, over time, some drivers will adjust to the longer yellows and continue to run red lights. However, there is just as much data to contradict Territo's theory.
"Rear-end crashes are not caused by red light cameras," Territo added. "They're caused by distracted driving."
RLC REFORM STRUGGLES IN TALLAHASSEE
After RLC reforms were shot down in legislative committees for a third straight year, State Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, snuck some late reforms onto a highway bill in the closing days of the 2013 session. The bill, HB 7125, awaits Governor Rick Scott's signature.
Among the changes: right turn violations will be harder to issue; violators may request a hearing within 60 days (previously 30 days, and no hearing was permitted); and more legal protections were put in place for drivers looking to challenge the citation.
READ: Pinellas Clerk Ken Burke's letter applauding RLC reforms
READ: RLC critic opposes Brandes bill
But reforms have been few and far between for RLC laws, largely because of the industry's massive lobbying presence. State disclosures indicate ATS has spent more than a million dollars lobbying in Florida alone, while its also donated more than half a million dollars to Florida politicians directly.
"They're almost everywhere," Brandes said of ATS lobbyists in Tallahassee.
This year, a bill by Sen. Joseph Abruzzo, D-Wellington, would have prevented municipalities from using posted speed limit in the yellow interval formula, but the legislation was gutted by Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth. Clemens is a long-time camera proponent who has accepted $1,000 in direct donations from ATS in recent years.
"I agree, (longer yellow intervals) may create a safer traffic situation in the short-term, when people are not used to having longer yellows," Clemens said. "(But) as soon as they get used to the fact that those yellows last longer, more people are going to be trying to run the red lights."
Clemens said he just wants the state to follow national standards. But he also admitted RLCs have allowed states to create new revenue streams without raising taxes.
Territo and ATS said they have no role in issuing the tickets in Florida; a local officer or deputy must review and confirm each individual violation. But RLCs are a $120 million/year business in Florida, and shorter yellow lights threaten the revenue stream.
In Georgia, a 2009 law that mandated longer yellow lights practically eradicated RLC programs across the state. Many municipalities saw violations drop by 80-90%. Similar drops were seen in Oldsmar, Fla. and Milton, Fla.
WHAT SHOULD I DO IF I'M CAUGHT RUNNING A RED?
10 News cannot provide legal advice, but you may have grounds to appeal an automated citation for a variety of reasons. If you believe you were ticketed because of a short yellow light, you may want to:
- Go online to review your ticket and record the video with a cell phone or other recording device.
- Going frame-by-frame, detemine if the yellow light failed to last as long as mandated by the TEM chart posted above. Also note how long the light was red before you entered the intersection.
- You may be able to appeal if you can prove the yellow light was too short and you would have normally made it through a normal yellow light.
- Even if the length of the yellow light meets the minimum, you may still be able to appeal if the yellow intervals are too short for drivers' actual average approach speed. The national suggestions posted above indicate safe stopping speed should be considered when planning RLC placements and yellow light times.
But ultimately, the choice to appeal is yours and as the law stands, the mere act of contesting the violation could cause your fine to surge from $158 to $264 -- even if you did nothing wrong.
Find 10 News Investigator Noah Pransky on Facebook or follow his updates on Twitter. Send your story tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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