Inspector General Issues a Reality Check on Trib’s Red Light Cam Spin

Photo-enforced-sign
Photo: The Expired Meter

Last summer, the Chicago Tribune reported on the mysterious spikes in red light ticketing at dozens of cameras around the city. Recently, the paper discovered the city had started enforcing violations that took place after slightly shorter yellow phases. This resulted in tens of thousands of additional tickets.

Given the track record of corruption in the red light camera program, the press needs to keep an eye on it. However, it appears that the Trib went a bit overboard by conflating the yellow light issue with the program’s troubled past.

Chicago Inspector General Joe Ferguson, who has blasted the previous oversight of the red light cam program as “fundamentally deficient,” has said that the motorists who got those additional tickets basically deserved them. “We saw no evidence [by the city] of intent to do anything nefarious or unfair,” he said in a recent Chicago Tonight interview.

State legislation for Chicago’s red-light camera program dictates that the minimum length of a traffic signal’s yellow phase should be three seconds, according to Chicago Department of Transportation spokesman Pete Scales. The reasoning for this standard is that motorists expect yellows to last at least that long. If a yellow light was to turn red much before three seconds elapse, a driver might be caught off-guard and blow the stoplight without doing anything reckless.

However, the state law allows for tickets to be issued when yellow lights deviate ever so slightly from the three-second standard, which can be triggered by minor fluctuations in the flow of the electrical current to the stoplight, according to Scales. So if a yellow phase dips a few hundredths of a second below the standard, the ticket is considered legal. “Those slight deviations are imperceptible to the motorist,” Scales said.

While RedFlex Traffic Systems, the previous red light camera contractor, was running the program, the city directed the vendor to set the cameras so that they would only issue tickets when a driver ran a red following a yellow phase of at least 3.0 seconds. Last year, in the wake of allegations that the company bribed a CDOT official, the city fired the company. This February, Xerox State & Local Solutions took over the contract.

Since then, administrative hearing officers have started to see tickets issued for reds run after yellow phases between 2.9 seconds and 3.0 seconds. Although these tickets were legal, some of the officers, who operate independently from CDOT, threw out the violations. A recent Tribune investigation discovered that 77,000 tickets had been issued for violations that occurred after sub-three-second yellows, resulting in $7.7 million in fines.

Chicago Tonight interview with Joe Ferguson.

After the Tribune report came out, Ferguson’s office issued a report that found the city told Xerox to set the equipment to issue tickets after 2.9-second yellows. In September, the department changed the standard back to 3.0 seconds in order to eliminate confusion and regain the public’s trust in the program, according to Scales. In a recent meeting with the Trib’s editorial board on Wednesday, Emanuel said he wouldn’t rule out the possibility of refunding fines from the shorter yellows.

The Tribune has spun the city’s original decision to change the yellow-light standard as a cynical maneuver. Here’s a passage from a recent article titled “How Chicago’s red light ticketing turned yellow lights into cash”:

Emanuel’s back-and-forth yellow light policy casts further doubt about the fairness of Chicago’s decade-old camera system, long billed as being about public safety and allegedly built on a bribery scheme at City Hall. It is also the latest example of inconsistent enforcement in a program the inspector general says was plagued by city mismanagement, failed oversight and a focus on keeping the cameras rolling.

However, in the Chicago Tonight interview, Ferguson said he didn’t see a problem with the city setting the cameras to issue tickets after imperceptibly shorter yellows:

“There wasn’t a change in yellow light times themselves. There was a change in the standard that was used to decide who to cite and not cite. But with respect to those 77,000 additional [violations issued] within that fraction of a second, those folks were all pretty much still breaking the law. … I think there has been a lot of misunderstanding and misreporting, quite frankly, around this.  The law is the law. And these fractional differences — we’re talking about milliseconds in a world in which three-tenths of second is the standard for human reaction time — [were] not even close to that.”

CDOT’s motive in lowering the yellow-light standard last February is unclear. The decision did increase revenue, but it also eliminated a loophole that allowed tens of thousands of drivers who ran reds to escape without tickets.

The Trib coverage failed to acknowledge the potential safety benefit of closing this loophole. The yellow light times had not been adjusted, and those motorists still decided to enter intersections after the light was red. They deserved fines. While it may have been politically necessary to reverse the decision, tightening the standard for issuing red light tickets made sense.

  • what_eva

    I’m not sure you really want to make this argument. The MUTCD lists 3 seconds as the absolute minimum for a yellow light. We absolutely have a problem with red light running in this city, but short yellow lights are also a problem, especially at complex intersections like the numerous 6-ways in the city.

  • skyrefuge

    The MUTCD ( http://mutcd.fhwa.dot.gov/htm/2009/part4/part4d.htm ) does not actually say that 3 seconds is the “absolute minimum” for a yellow light. The standard says the yellow light interval “shall be determined using engineering practices”. As a guidance (lesser than a standard) it states “A yellow change interval should have a minimum duration of 3 seconds and a maximum duration of 6 seconds.” Certainly Chicago should still follow that guidance, and they do.

    The fact that some lights occasionally have a yellow interval lower than 3 seconds doesn’t mean that the MUTCD standard is being violated. That is because there is another line of the standard that states “The durations of yellow change intervals and red clearance intervals shall be consistent with the determined values within the technical capabilities of the controller unit.”

    For the “technical capabilities of the controller unit”, we go to another standard, this one the NEMA TS-2 ( http://www.peektraffic.com/portal/sites/default/files/NEMA%20TS2-2003.pdf ). That standard does not even allow a yellow change interval to be set lower than 3 seconds, but, it also says “Any interval timed shall not deviate by more than +/-100 milliseconds from its set value”. A spec like the MUTCD can get away with using infinitely precise values, but when you get down to an actual engineered product, a tolerance like that is a requirement. Another part of the spec for the light-controllers self-checking will declare a malfunction if the yellow change interval is 2.7 +/- 0.1 seconds.

    In other words, a yellow change interval that measures as 2.9 seconds indicates neither a malfunctioning controller, nor a violation of the MUTCD standard.

    All that said, yes, it was politically dumb for CDOT to start issuing citations for violations with yellow change intervals less than 3.0 seconds. But I’m sure in most of the <3.0 second cases, the yellow change interval is unrelated to the violation; most violations begin way later than 0.1 seconds after the light turns red.

    In terms of short yellow lights being a problem in the city, do you mean there are malfunctioning controllers producing intervals lower than 3 seconds, or just that you think the interval setting should be longer? What does the complexity of an intersection have to do with the length of the yellow interval? People need more warning to stop if the intersection ahead of them appears complex?

  • BillD

    At least 3 is not equal to 2.9. Or even 2.99.

    I don’t know how anyone can say that revenue is not the primary motivation of red light cameras. Even if safety is a secondary motive.

    If the city was primarily interested in intersection safety all yellows would be extended and there would be a red light overlap. That would mean slightly longer signal times and lower ticket revenue.

    I love the walk timers, but see enough people who jam their brakes causing unneeded flinches at 3 seconds to avoid red light tickets.

    As opposed to speed cameras that do seem to be generally in places where people should be at the speed limit.

  • oooBooo

    Anyone looking for quick enlightenment on the RLC scam should read Dick Armey’s staff’s congressional report. That’s the best summary of the history of how things got this way. http://www.motorists.org/red-light-cameras/armeyreport.pdf

  • oooBooo

    The MUTCD refers to ITE for timings. ( http://mutcd.fhwa.dot.gov/htm/2009r1r2/part4/part4d.htm#section4D26 ) Over time the standards, guidance, and practices have changed (ITE & MUTCD) to shorten yellows and instead of correcting red light running issues with longer yellows to use enforcement. Older formulas resulted in long yellow signals just to start with.

    Longer yellow signals still work to prevent red light running. When required to lengthen yellow signals the RLCs are no longer profitable.

  • oooBooo

    Actually… RLC’s typically activate 0.1 seconds after the light turns red. Most violations occur shortly there after. Trimming .1 seconds means a 20-40% advantage for more revenue because the bulk of the RLC money is in that first half second or less.

    I found an ok reference… page 34-35 of http://www.nhtsa.gov/DOT/NHTSA/NRD/Multimedia/PDFs/Crash%20Avoidance/2006/810580.pdf

    The heavy weighting to 0.2 to 0.5 seconds is evident from the plots. Every little split hair of time is money for an RLC. People just shrug it off, but the companies and the government are well aware of these distribution curves.

  • what_eva

    It’s not the complexity of a 6-way, it’s the length. A yellow is supposed to be long enough to *clear* the intersection, not merely enough time for someone to decide to stop or not. In some of the larger 6-way intersections, it’s just not possible. The timings should be longer in those cases.

  • Jack

    I was ticketed for running a red light and the city’s info itself listed the amber as 2.9. I had a video specialist analyze the time, and it was actually LESS than 2.9 but rounded up. By analyzing the video, I would not have entered the intersection on the red if it was 3 seconds. These fractions of a second make a big difference when your travelling @30mph (or faster if your trying to make the light).
    No one can make a statement that the 2.9 seconds would not make any difference as to the guilt of those that ran the red without research…

    got it dismissed, BTW

  • skyrefuge

    Ah, OK, I was thinking purely in terms of RLCs, where as long as you have *entered* the intersection before the yellow phase ends, you’re OK. But in terms of actual safety, I can understand a longer yellow interval (or more appropriately, a longer “red clearance interval”, when all directions are red) for wider intersections.

  • BlueFairlane

    A car traveling at 30 mph travels 4.4 feet in a tenth of a second. If you were, in fact, doing 30 and that 4.4 feet was all that kept you from making it into the intersection on red, then you were 136.4 feet from the intersection when the light went yellow. That’s more than enough time to stop.

  • skyrefuge

    The sensible practice would be to only issue a citation if the car entered the intersection 3.0 seconds or more after light turned yellow. This would make the issue of “short yellows” irrelevant. The Trib’s angle unfortunately prevented them from informing us whether or not this is how the system actually operates.

    Anyway, it’s very unscientific, but when I was looking at a sample of citation records, the yellow variance was what CDOT claims, on the order of thousandths of a second, where even a tenth of a second violation wouldn’t be much affected. But yes, I agree that those could still make a difference at the edges, IF the city actually issued citations where the violation time is lower than the yellow variance.

  • Blake

    There is no “problem” of people running red lights. If CDOT used proven measures to make intersections safer, such as lengthening the yellow light to 4 seconds, the “problem” would go away.

    The Tribune has done an excellent job of exposing the corruption behind this program, and lowering the threshold to issue tickets below legal limits is just another example of how corrupt this program is, and the only motivation is money.

    Again, if the city cared about safety, they would do everything they could to make intersections safer. RLCs do nothing to make intersections safer.

    BUT, unfortunately, the people who write on this website can’t see it that way. They, instead, think tickets should be issued when yellow lights are less than the legal required minimum. Those people did not deserve fines.

    It’s incredible you would write: While it may have been politically necessary to reverse the decision, tightening the standard for issuing red light tickets made sense.

    Really? It makes sense to issue tickets when the intersections are made unsafe by lowering the yellow light? Maybe it should be 2 seconds? O just go from green to red? Would drivers then deserve fines? I mean, maybe everyone should just stop at every light, whether it’s green or red, because it may not be safe to enter an intersection.

    Do you really, honestly, think about what you write, John? Apparently not.

    You try to frame the Tribune has having little credibility, but you should take a good look in the mirror, as you, John, are the one who has no credibility.

  • skyrefuge

    The lights don’t turn yellow until the walk timer hits 0, so anyone braking at 3 isn’t paying attention or doesn’t understand how the RLCs work. As long as you have entered the intersection before the light turns red, you’re totally fine.

  • what_eva

    Right, that’s my point. When pretty much any standard has 3s as a bare minimum and for a lot of city intersections would recommend longer, does Streetsblog really want to be arguing for red light tickets on a 2.9s yellow?

    RLC’s triggering on merely entering the intersection clouds the issue that the yellow should be longer.

  • what_eva

    Yeah, those drive me nuts too, drivers stopping on green because the walk timer is down to 2.

  • skyrefuge

    No one ever “lowered the yellow light time”. The yellow lights are the same as they were before RLCs existed: 3.0 seconds, with random variation plus or minus hundredths of a second. For every driver who you feel was unfairly cited for a too-short yellow, there is presumably one who “got off” due to a “too long” yellow.

  • oooBooo

    Yes, many years ago, about 2003-4, RLC companies and governments, after being being caught shortening yellow signals went to all new programs consisting of cherry picked intersections that had a variety of pre-existing defects. The Chicago program came online during this period and because of a long standing program of short yellow signals offered an immense harvest (profit) potential.

  • oooBooo

    1) Assumes he is looking at the traffic signal the moment it changes to yellow.
    2) Assumes reaction time of zero.

    It’s called the Dilemma zone for a reason.

  • oooBooo

    They could just set the yellow signal to 3.25 seconds and then it would never fall below three because of equipment issues. However they would lose ~25% of their revenue if not more.

  • Blake

    Hence, the reason why Reflex and city officials now face federal bribery charges. And it was all about safety…
    I’m sure John still thinks so

  • Blake

    The people at Streetsblog have a crusade against cars, so anything they can do to promote and anit-car agenda, and paint a picture that driving is “dangerous”, they will do.
    This is a perfect example. These tickets are illegal, yet John thinks tickets should be issued. Completely illogical.

  • Blake

    Yes, “violations” would likely go down. Intersections would be safer. Streetsblog would have a cow!

  • Blake

    I think there needs to be an investigation into why the threshold was lowered in the first place. Rebekkah needs to answer for this. But of course she doesn’t. She just brushes it off.
    And what’s with the overuse of the word “imperceptible”? Is this a new word that she learned?

  • Forget standards, forget how to determine standards. If the long term basis of the program is to use 3.0 seconds as the default minimum–and honor it rigorously–that should be maintained unless you report the change and make it public knowledge. I haven’t read that that occurred.

    Even if you acknowledge “electrical error,” the program should specifically rule those citations out in order to maintain a structured window, not flap in the wind because it benefits you (the City). If they’re able to adjust accepted violation times on a whim, they might as well accept all violations regardless of electrical error or any reason for that matter.

    If an automated system doesn’t really appear to offer any wiggle room regarding arguing the legitimacy of the citation, which I have no issues with rigidness, the citations should be issued within specific parameters. Particularly related to how the light timings SHOULD operate, not including errors due to equipment failure.

  • David

    What’s really funny is John thinks he’s a journalist, yet thinks he works M-F 9-5. He doesn’t even have the courage to come here and defend himself over the weekend. What a pansy.

  • Alicia

    Are you the same person as Blake?

  • Jack

    you obviously missed the point… I was closer to the intersection than 136.4 feet, so clearly the amber would still be lit when I entered the intersection….

  • Jack

    if the amber was set for the full three seconds

  • BlueFairlane

    How far were you from the intersection, exactly?

  • BlueFairlane

    1) Shouldn’t the traffic signal be one of the more important things you’re looking at when you approach an intersection?

    2) There are lots of variables in calculating average stopping distance of a car, but it’s generally accepted that stopping distance at 30 mph is between 70 and 80 feet. That includes a non-zero reaction time. 136.4 is nearly double that, leaving you a little more than a second to dither.

  • oooBooo

    1) Traffic is the most important thing to be watching. If someone is for instance checking his mirrors that could cost a second or a second and half of the yellow signal. View of the signal may also be obstructed by a truck or other traffic for a period of time.
    2) you don’t where his location was relative to the light nor his speed and neither do I. It’s a judgment call. Most drivers will not use full braking capability of their vehicles for a traffic signal.

    I can’t find a good example of dilemma zone calculation at present. Found one with the formula but all variables aren’t described. If you want to noodle with it, here it is: http://www.tcd.ie/civileng/Staff/Bidisha.Ghosh/Introduction%20to%20Transport/08-09/lec6intro.ppt

    As I pointed out and cited elsewhere in this comment section, most red light running is in the first half second, very little after one second. These slight details is where the money is made. When forced to increase yellow signals the revenue, the violations, collapse.

    The argument against increasing the yellow signal basically consists of this authority mindset. Would it kill us to have the yellow signal a fraction of a second longer? Or even one second? It could simply be taken from the all red phase if it’s going to throw things off so badly. For decades longer yellow has been how red light running gets addressed. It’s proven it works. So what’s left, this desire to punish people for insufficient obedience.

  • BlueFairlane

    1) The apparent inability to perform the simple tasks required to operate a motor vehicle represented by the excuses I’ve seen people trot out in these discussions is truly frightening. It is possible for the human consciousness to process two things at once, and maybe one needs to better prioritize when one looks certain places. If you’re 500 feet from a light while traveling at 30 mph, check your mirror. If you’re 132 feet from a light you will pass in 3 seconds, perhaps that isn’t the best time.

    2) I don’t know where he was relative to his light, and I don’t know his speed. I do know that if he were driving at the legal speed and he crossed into the intersection at or after the end of the yellow, he was at least 132 feet away from the light when the yellow began. If the yellow only lasted 2.9 seconds, he was at least 127.6 feet away. If he was any closer and he entered the intersection after the end of the yellow, he was speeding and therefore has nothing to whine about.

    I would be fine with increasing the length of the yellow, though I’m fairly sure those arguing against the cameras would still complain about them being too short. However, a three-second yellow is long enough to stop.

  • oooBooo

    I am not making ‘excuses’, I am bringing up factors that are very much part of the process of properly engineering an intersection. A blanket 3 second policy is not engineering. The simple fact is that RLC systems are designed to exploit underlying defects at intersections. That’s how they make money. Remove the defects and the red light running goes away. It’s been proven with universal success. Every time the defects are fixed or usually just patched over with a longer yellow signal, the problem of red light running goes away. They don’t waste their time putting RLCs on intersections that are well engineered.

    I fully understand how the red light camera scam works. I understand how to engineer systems for human beings. Roads are engineered products and I treat them as such. I aim to solve the problems the way we usually do in the market by finding the root cause and addressing it. But authoritarians, they don’t believe that authority is scamming and they don’t believe in engineering for human beings because to an authoritarian the problem is always insufficient obedience to authority and enforcement (monitoring and punishment) is the only solution. It’s that attitude that really makes the RLCs money makers. It’s not magic how they work. They exploit human factors on every level. Nor is that any sort of secret. It’s been known for over a decade.

    We’re talking about a 0.1 second error in judgement. Actual speed below the PSL, light goes yellow when he is fairly close to the intersection. He thinks he’s going the PSL, over estimates his speed and decides to go instead of stop. He’s a fraction of a second late. It’s that simple. He’s going 40 feet per second. At 128 ft from intersection the light goes yellow. If he’s doing 30mph, he makes it, but he’s actually going ~27mph. He trips the RLC.

  • What I learned yesterday at a committee hearing at City Hall is that the red light camera turns on even before the light turns to red. The red light camera begins recording video when it detects (using induction loop detectors under Redflex and radar under Xerox) a vehicle traveling above the “trigger speed”.

    The thinking is that vehicles traveling above this trigger speed at a certain point are unlikely to come to a complete stop and are therefore likely to run a red light.

    The trigger speed is currently 13 MPH for Xerox equipment and was 15 MPH for Redflex. The IG found that the trigger speed under Redflex had somehow fallen below 15 MPH to as low as 5 MPH. However, this would only increase the possibility that the camera catches a possible red light running motorist. CDOT believes that the 13 MPH trigger speed is sufficient to catch 99% of potential red light runners.

  • The yellow lights are not always linked to pedestrian countdown signals.

    For example, the through-traffic light at the intersection of SB California and WB 90/94 (Kennedy) turns yellow when the pedestrian countdown timer displays “3”.

    There are others where the pedestrian countdown time will show “0” several seconds before the traffic signal switches from green to yellow.

  • “Longer yellow signals still work to prevent red light running. When required to lengthen yellow signals the RLCs are no longer profitable.” I don’t think you can prove the second sentence’s assertion.

    It’s true that longer yellow signals reduce red light running, but one study showed that when you combine a extending the yellow duration from 3.0 seconds to 4.0 seconds with a red light camera, you reach a nearly 100% reduction in red light running.

    At intersections that only received the treatment of a longer yellow light, red light running reduced between 20% and 63% versus the period before any interventions. When the red light camera was added to these intersections the incidence of red light running reduced between 87% and 100% versus the period before any interventions (including before lengthening the yellow time).

    https://www.dshs.state.tx.us/emstraumasystems/RettingetalAAP2007.pdf

  • skyrefuge

    huh, interesting. I admittedly drew my conclusion after sampling only a few intersections. I wonder if there’s an extended all-red phase at the California/Kennedy intersection to compensate for the “late” countdown timer? I drive through that intersection all the time (though NB California to WB Kennedy), I’ll have to pay more attention.

  • oooBooo

    I can prove that the RLCs are no longer profitable once the yellow signal is lengthened, but you just did it for me with a cite! :) Yes, when an RLC intersection has the yellow signal time increased (and/or other defects if they exist fixed) the reduction in red light running is 85 to 100%. It depends on which study one wants to look at, but that’s the range. The drop in violations is catastrophic for revenue.The camera is typically removed after a few weeks or months of losing money. If the motivation was safety the camera would remain. But no jurisdiction to my knowledge operates money losing RLCs.

    Now your cite does it the opposite way, lengthens the yellow and then adds the camera, but the result is the same, an unprofitable RLC. The second sentence stands. RLCs become unprofitable with longer yellow signals.

    As to why there is lower compliance with just the longer yellow, I am not sure. The study did control for right on red. Many people (including myself) will not turn right on red at an RLC intersection. The only flaw I can find is that they did not capture the vast majority of red light running which occurs in the first half second that they did not count. This will greatly influence the results. I understand why they did not count the first half second, but the problem is that red light running is so skewed into the first half second, that’s where most of the ‘error’ red light running is. After a half second we get more and more deliberate red light running. An RLC does a lot for deliberate red light running but it makes its money on errors.

  • oooBooo

    yes, they do start recording early, I was referring to when a violation is triggered. I should have been technically more exact, but doing so tends to confuse and bore people. Trigger speeds have interesting side effects. Somewhere I have video where someone ran a red signal on an RLC covered approach at about 4mph right in front of me, forcing me to stop to avoid a collision and the RLC did not flash.

  • Patrick J Keating

    That’s like saying if your speedometer has an error, and it says 65mph but you are clocked going 70, you weren’t speeding. If your signals have a .1 second deviation then you need to set the controllers to 3.1seconds to make sure you never go below 3.0 seconds. Equipment error doesnt run in the City’s favor…

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