Shorter Yellow Lights: Are They Your Town's Latest Cash Cow?


The yellow traffic light is taking on a new meaning for motorists during these tough economic times: one expensive trap.

According to the National Motorists Association (NMA), some municipalities have been caught shortening the time in which yellow lights are on in order to generate additional revenue from tickets issued to motorists caught on traffic cameras running red lights. At least six cities including Dallas and Chattanooga, Tenn. have engaged in the practice in recent years, the organization's Web site says.

Traffic cameras are seen as cash cows by their backers. Big cities reap millions in revenue from the cameras, which cost about $100,000 to install. Los Angeles issues about 3,600 red-light violations a month through its camera systems and netted more than $6 million last year from the program after expenses, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Shorten the time in which drivers have to stop and that revenue-stream can be even more lucrative. For the NMA, a libertarian group opposed to many traffic safety rules, shorter yellow lights is one way state and local governments can justify the expensive traffic camera systems, says the group's President Jim Baxter.

Other groups, including the larger American Automobile Association, say the NMA is exaggerating the extent of the problem in order to whip up public hysteria. "AAA does not believe the problem is widespread," says Justin McNaull, the organization's director of state relations. He says the problems disclosed by the NMA were in isolated programs run by vendors motivated by profit.

Baxter, though, is undaunted. "They play games with the yellow light timing," he says, adding that manipulating yellow lights does little to promote traffic safety

Traffic Cameras: Entrapment or Safety Measure?

"We do not believe in entrapment," says Thomas W. Brahms, executive director of the Institute of Transportation Engineers. Any engineer or municipality that timed traffic lights to maximize ticket revenue would create huge legal liabilities, he says. "It would be an absolutely ludicrous thing to do."

Nevertheless, traffic cameras still seem to garner their fair share of controversy. The Missouri Supreme Court temporarily suspended the city of Springfield's automated red-light enforcement system after it discovered the city was conducting ticket hearings on the cheap without giving people their due process in the courts, according to the "The city has issued 9,784 violation notices to date and collected about $803,000 in fines to date," the web site says.

In Illinois, the state Senate is holding public hearings on traffic cameras and whether or not they should be banned, according to Medill Reports. Lawsuits have also been filed in Collier County, Fla., challenging the legality of red-light cameras. And, in Cleveland, a campaign to yank the cameras by opponents is starting to gain steam.

Critics of the cameras argue that making yellow lights longer is a cheaper, safer alternative to installing the pricey traffic camera systems. Officials in Denver found that red light infractions fell at intersections with traffic cameras by 60% after yellow lights were actually extended, according to the Denver Post.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, though, claims that the benefits seen from lengthening yellow lights does not mean that traffic cameras are not needed. Russ Rader of the IIHS, which we should note is funded by the auto insurance industry, says traffic cameras are an effective tool in catching potentially dangerous drivers and are welcomed by most people. "Unfortunately, there are a lot of drivers who believe their time is worth more than your life," he says.