Yay! Longer Yellow Traffic Light Phases Now Required by Caltrans

Yay! Longer Yellow Traffic Light Phases Now Required by CaltransEXPAND
Dennis Romero/L.A. Weekly

Many motorists complain that relatively quick yellow-light phases at red-light camera intersections amount to so-called "ticket traps" because they barely get a chance to make a safe stop.

Jay Beeber, executive director of Safer Streets L.A, argues that shorter yellow-times make our roads less safe because they can inspire motorists to slam on their breaks and risk getting rear-ended. He says that, in some cities, the short yellow lights are purposely timed to snap drivers running red lights and help to send off revenue-generating $500 tickets.

See also: Everything You Need to Know About Ignoring Red-Light Camera Tickets

Lucky for you, the jig is up. Caltrans recently established new rules for setting yellow-light times, rules that will increase those phases at many intersections.

As it stands, towns like Beverly Hills and Culver City set their yellow-light phases according to posted speed limits, Beeber tells us.

However, as you can imagine, those posted limits can be unrealistically low.

Beeber went to Sacramento to argue before the Caltrans California Traffic Control Devices Committee that it would be safer to set yellow-light times according to the actual speed of traffic or, technically speaking the speed at which autos up to the 85th percentile of those surveyed are going.

That tends to increase the basis on which yellow lights are timed (although, Beeber says, those surveys can be gamed).

Caltrans recently said yes to Beeber's effort, which was supported by state Assemblyman Adrin Nazarian of the San Fernando Valley.

Caltrans ruled that cities can either use the real speed of traffic or add 7 to 10 miles per hour to their current basis in order to calculate yellow-light phases. Beeber said this should add about a half a second or more to the average yellow light that isn't currently timed this way.

In Beverly Hills, for example, a notorious red-light camera snaps photos and issues tickets all day long. It's at Wilshire Boulevard and Whittier Drive and catches motorists going downhill through a fast section of Wilshire just as it crosses the city line from the so-called "condo canyon" of Westwood and Holmby Hills.

While the yellow-light timing is based on a posted speed limit of 30 miles per hour, Beeber says, surveys show that the traffic there moves at closer to 40.

That would increase the timing of that particular yellow light from about 3.3 seconds to about 3.9 seconds under Caltrans' new formula, published in its Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, he said.

This can mean fewer accidents, but it can also reduce revenue for cities that have grown accustomed to getting a slice of the red-light ticket ripoff.

In a statement, Beeber explained how a time increase would affect violators:

Increasing the yellow time, even by a small fraction of a second, has been shown to substantially reduce red light violations. For example, when the City of West Hollywood increased their yellow interval by 0.3 second, there was a 40% to 70% reduction in violations at their red light camera locations. In Fremont, California, Caltrans increased the yellow signal time at one intersection by 0.7 second and red light running violations immediately dropped by 76%. In Loma Linda, California, there was a 92% reduction in red light running when the yellow signal time was increased by 1.0 second. Similar reductions have been seen every time yellow intervals have been lengthened with no rebound in violations over time.

For the state's 42 cities with red-light-camera-equipped intersections, Caltrans mandates that they must start basing their timing on actual traffic speed by Aug. 1.

All other intersections must have their traffic-light timing adjusted according to the new formula by Aug. 1, 2017 if they haven't already done so.

Folks who get red-light camera tickets from a jurisdiction within Los Angeles County can effectively ignore them, experts, including Beeber, have told us repeatedly. The city of L.A. even discontinued its red-light camera program after learning it wasn't really that cost effective.

Yay! Longer Yellow Traffic Light Phases Now Required by CaltransEXPAND
Dennis Romero/L.A. Weekly

Beeber is telling people who get red-light camera tickets that they can also fight them in court if they occurred at intersections that will have to change under the Caltrans protocol.

He said he believes that some cities have already started adding new violations such as illegal right- and left-turn tickets to their red-light-camera programs in anticipation of the revenue reduction that will surely result from Caltrans' new formula.

The battle's not over yet, he says: "We need to have these changes on a federal level."

Send feedback and tips to the author. Follow Dennis Romero on Twitter at @dennisjromero. Follow L.A. Weekly News on Twitter at @laweeklynews.


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