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VA: City running illegal yellow lights to boost tickets, motorist group charges

By   /   January 10, 2013  /   News  /   3 Comments

STOP THAT: Shorter yellow lights yield more traffic tickets and less-safe intersections, a national motorists group says.

By Kenric Ward | Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau

VIRGINIA BEACH — Virginia‘s largest city is manipulating the timing of yellow lights to inflate the number of tickets issued at intersections, the National Motorists Association charges.

The NMA says Virginia Beach‘s revenue-generating scheme violates state law, though the Department of Transportation says otherwise.

The city issued some 16,500 traffic citations to red-light runners and left-turn violators at 90 camera-monitored lanes in 2011.

“But the (shorter) yellow change intervals on 85 of the 90 lanes do not comply with the Institute of Traffic Engineers’ methodology required by the state’s red-light camera law,” said Joe Bahen, of NMA’s Virginia chapter.

“Had the city’s yellow intervals been in compliance, approximately 8,000 citations would not have been issued,” Bahen, a public engineer, told Watchdog.org.

City officials maintain that their timing of yellow lights is in accord with state law, which applies to all intersections where there is camera enforcement.

Virginia Department of Transportation spokeswoman Tamara Rollison said “posted speed limits should be used” in calculating the length of light changes at such intersections. VDOT determined that Virginia Beach adhered to ITE methodology.

But ITE’s formula sets yellow-light intervals according to the “speed of free-flowing vehicles,” typically about 7 mph faster than the posted speed limit. That translates into longer yellows.

“VDOT’s ridiculous pretension that it is complying with the ITE methodology has resulted in yellow intervals that are about 0.5 second too short all across the state,” Bahen said.

By shortening yellow lights, Virginia Beach not only is able to ticket more red-light runners, it has created “dilemma zones” that lead to crashes when motorists are unsure whether to speed through an intersection or slam on the brakes, Bahen charged.

In anEngineering Certification,” Bahen formally alleges that traffic-light enforcement at Kempsville and Indian River roads “has been operating illegally ever since it was activated on March 13, 2009.”

Brian Walters, a Virginia Beach master police officer and prime proponent of the city’s aggressive photo-enforcement initiative, said it is “changing drivers’ behavior.”

On its own website, theRed Means Stopcampaign purports to live up to the program’s name, “PhotoSafe.”

ITE declined to comment on the dispute between Virginia Beach and the NMA.  City officials did not respond to Watchdog’s questions about the origins of the program, or who initially proposed it.

Vanessa Dallas, a lifelong Virginia Beach resident, was hopping mad after she was ticketed for running a red light last year.

“Some of our intersections are so huge, you can’t get through on a yellow light,” said Dallas, who received a camera-generated $50 ticket at Great Neck Road and Virginia Beach Boulevard.

“If you slam on the brakes, you’re rear-ended. If you go through, you get a ticket,” the real-estate agent told Watchdog.

The city has yet to declare that its efforts have reduced accident rates at intersections.

“Before we say they’re a success, we want to be careful about how we look at it,” city traffic engineer Robert Gey told the Virginian-Pilot. “We want to make sure that the study is bullet-proof.”

Gey said the best assessment of data will be available this spring, comparing three years of no cameras (2006, 2007, 2008) to three years of having cameras in operation (2010, 2011, 2012).

NMA communications director John Bowman isn’t waiting. He said the city is heading in the wrong direction.

Clearly, a simple thing like lengthening yellow light timing can have a huge positive impact on traffic safety, whereas shortening it has the opposite effect. Yet the cities that use red-light cameras have become so dependent on the income they rarely consider it,” Bowman told Watchdog.

Indeed, Virginia Beach is not the only municipality to jigger its yellow lights to drive up ticket revenue. Several cities around the country have been caught shortening yellows. (See roundup here.)

Gary Biller, president of the Wisconsin-based NMA, said Virginia drivers are at the mercy local policies that vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.

“Except for a small percentage of traffic signals that are camera-enforced, there is no legal requirement on the timing of yellow change intervals in Virginia.  Hence, yellow intervals are inconsistent and often dangerously short throughout the state,” Biller said.

“The danger is being compounded by profit-motivated enforcement of short yellows, which always increases rear-end crash rates.”

Contact Kenric Ward at [email protected] or at (571) 319-9824. @Kenricward


Kenric Ward was a former San Antonio-based reporter for Watchdog.org.

  • Many cities all across the country in states where red light cameras are permitted run the scam in similar ways. The yellow intervals are deliberately set a bit too short for the actual approach speeds of vehicles and this tricks thousands of safe drivers into making split second violations that occur due to the deliberately improper traffic light engineering.

    Red light cameras are a for-profit business partnership between a camera company and a city that is willing to set up their traffic lights and enforcement rules to give tickets mostly to safe drivers for the money.

    The cameras should be banned statewide in Virginia and every other state. This would remove the financial incentive for cities to mis-engineer their traffic lights for profits. Profits are an unacceptable motive for traffic laws and the resulting enforcement rules.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association (frequent area visitor for family and for business – including this week)

  • Aside from the unethical nature of this manipulation, it also seems unconscionable that they would do something that would increase the likelihood that accidents will result at these intersections… especially among younger, less experienced drivers.

  • Any belief that considerations other than money are really in play are false. Red light cameras are about money – first, last and always. Ethics, fairness, traffic safety, etc. play no part in the decisions for cities to use and exploit red light cameras for revenue. It is why the only effective solution is to take them down. Then cities will have no financial incentives to mis-engineer traffic lights or to craft camera enforcement rules to maximize ticket profits. Safety will retake the first place in how and why intersections are engineered. James C. Walker, National Motorists Association