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California City Makes a Million From Split Second Mistakes

July 21, 2009

California City Makes a Million From Split Second Mistakes
Red light camera tickets in Fullerton, California are issued to those misjudging a red light by less than a second.  

Yellow light by Fazen/FlickrRed light cameras have come under fire recently for focusing on vehicles that make right turns on red, a maneuver that is rarely responsible for causing an accident. But even cities that do not issue many right turn tickets focus on another type of violation that is not dangerous. According to data obtained from the city of Fullerton, California, tickets mailed to the owners of vehicles entering a through intersection less than a second after the light turned red added up to nearly $1 million last year. These technical violations rarely cause accidents.

A 2004 Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) study showed that right angle accidents — the type caused by straight-through violations of red signals at intersections — do not happen until an average of nine seconds after the signal had changed from yellow to red (view study).

“With one exception, all of the right-angle crashes occurred after five seconds or more of red,” the TTI study explained. “Closer inspection of the one exception revealed that it occurred very late at night with both vehicles violating their respective red indications at about the same time.”

According to figures compiled by TheNewspaper, the dangerous violations — those issued for entering an intersection five or more seconds after the light turned — accounted for just eight percent of Fullerton’s citations. By comparison, twelve percent of the $396 tickets went to vehicles that missed the light by the duration of the blink of an eye — 0.3 seconds or less. A total of fifteen tickets worth $5940 went to vehicles that entered an intersection less than 100 milliseconds after the light had turned red. These 2008 data are consistent with a report by the California State Auditor that found 77 percent of red light cameras tickets were issued for split-second violations in 2001.

Had Fullerton extended the duration of the yellow light at its intersections by just one second, these violations would not have happened. The 2004 TTI study confirmed that when an extra second of yellow was added to the bare minimum amount of yellow time, both accidents and violations decreased. A Georgia law that took effect in January required the addition of a second of yellow at camera intersections. It resulted in a drop in violations of between 70 and 80 percent.

Fullerton’s data also show that the number of tickets issued does not necessarily decline over time as a result of changing driver behavior. First, each month, the percentage of citations issued varied between 46 and 73 percent of the detected violations. Both the city and the vendor can reject a citation for any reason. By adjusting this variable, the vendor can reduce or increase the number of tickets, as desired. Second, the red light camera vendor constantly adds new monitored approaches to ensure a steady increase in profit, as Fullerton attempted to do. Third, the cameras are prone to frequent malfunctions that keep the devices from functioning, reducing the number of tickets issued. For example, zero citations were issued at the intersection of Harbor and Chapman over a two week period in 2008.

“Context and signal views (are) playing in fast speed and not at same time,” a maintenance log entry reads for March 6. “Every Event. Cannot Cite. Checked newest events, they have same problem.”

The records show dozens of additional computer errors, the need to re-aim cameras and the need to install glare filters. These problems came to an end in December after a December appellate ruling declared the city’s red light camera contract illegal view ruling. Since then, Fullerton’s red light camera vendor, Nestor Traffic Systems, has gone into receivership.

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