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Red light cameras may be causing more harm than good in New York City

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Red light cameras are coming under fire from safety advocates, engineers and drivers in New York.   The finding is that the yellow lights are simply too short for safety, and instead meant to fatten up municipal coffers.  They’re being used in New York as part of the Vision Zero campaign to eliminate pedestrian deaths.  But are they causing other injuries instead?

Vladamir Cvijilic of Brighton Beach found out the hard way on the 135th Street approach to the Third Avenue Bridge in the Bronx.  He was rear ended by Iuri Regalado,  driving his boss' seafood truck when he slammed on his breaks to avoid a $50 red light ticket.

Every flash of light helps put $27 million dollars a year into New York City’s general fund.  It’s the nation’s longest running red light camera program at 20 years old.  187 cameras at 150 intersections in New York catch violators, at a steadily decreasing rate.

Yet the cameras are an increasing point of controversy from watchdog groups that say they are causing unnecessary injuries.  Robert Sinclair, with the AAA of New York says flatly, “These programs need to be for safety, and not revenue.” Sinclair points out both New Jersey and Nassau County killed their red light camera program.  “Engineers found through analysis that some amber lights are simply too short.  It was scrapped.  That’s what needs to happen here, too.”

But New York, with its Vision Zero program aiming to eliminate all pedestrian deaths, stands firm. They are pointing out not only red-light-running is declining at intersections with cameras, but also injuries are down by 66% in 2013. Juan Martinez, NYC DOT’s Director of Strategic Initiatives points out,  “What you see happening is that when people expect the law to be enforced, they stop blowing through red lights.  It really is very straightforward.  Every yellow light is timed to the same whether camera there or not: 3 seconds if it’s 30 mph.”

But that may be the real problem.  According to traffic engineers,  using the same city-wide speed limit does not mean the yellow light time should be the same.  Civil and Environmental Engineer and professor at Michigan State University Timothy Gates says, “It certainly can be an unsafe situation especially if you use a yellow that’s too short.”

Every yellow light in New York City is exactly 3 seconds long.  But Gates, who’s part of the group the Institute of Transportation Engineers that literally wrote the book on traffic signal safety, says that’s simply too short according to nationally recognized engineering standards.  He advocates a yellow time of 3 ½ seconds.  When I asked if that extra half a second really matters? “Yes.  It really does.”

Because too often, short yellows lead to rear-end crashes.  Gates explains, “Because drivers,  if they have a yellow that’s too short, and slam on their brakes, perhaps contribute to read end collisions.”

It’s exactly what’s happening in the city of Yonkers.  In the three years they’ve had red light cameras, “the data have shown they have traded very few t-bone crashes for a lot of rear-end crashes,” says Robert Sinclair, of New York’s AAA.  He points to the city’s own findings.  “Rear end crashes are up 83% in 2013 calendar year, the most recent year of data provided.  And right angle crashes are down a mere 15%.  That’s the crash it’s supposed to prevent.  This is the perfect illustration of the problem with these programs if they’re not done right.”

The only city in New York to evaluate it’s red light program is Rochester, which used independent engineers to study crash data at intersections with red light cameras, and make adjustments.  Yellow lights are not a one-size-fits-all solution.  Each needs to be timed according to intersection size, and most importantly, the prevailing rate of speed -- not the posted speed limit, insist engineers.  And only then will these intersections be safer for all.