Disarming Your Opponent with Reason and Facts: NMA E-Newsletter #360

Editor’s Note: The NMA has a long tradition of calling out the AAA for its often contradictory or hypocritical stances on important motorists’ issues such as improperly set speed limits and the use of red-light cameras. NMA Foundation Executive Director Jim Walker has often led the charge as he did recently with this letter to AAA Northeast. The letter below serves as a balanced critique of AAA’s recommendation for a red-light camera program in White Plains, New York. Note how Jim cuts through AAA’s rhetoric and uses the facts to dismantle the association’s arguments.

Dear Mr. Slatky,

Thanks for the paper on recommendations for a White Plains red-light camera program. It contains many of the generic principles that could establish a fair and transparent program aimed at producing safety improvements if cities adopted them, not a lucrative revenue stream. However it does not contain the specific mandates necessary to prevent using a program primarily for revenue rather than safety.

There are no absolute (“Shall” in traffic engineering terminology) requirements to

  • Use yellow intervals in the ITE formula based on the actual 85th percentile approach speeds of free flowing traffic under good conditions.
  • Use perception/reaction times in the ITE formula longer than 1.0 seconds which is sufficient for only about half the drivers.
  • Use a minimum grace period for the reasonable tolerance principle mentioned (Virginia mandates 0.5 seconds by law).
  • Prevent ticketing the overwhelming majority of safe slow rolling right on red turns by safe drivers who endangered no one because they slowed enough to be sure there were no conflicting pedestrians, cyclists or other vehicles as they made very low speed turns.
  • Do the engineering changes in advance that tend to drop violation rates by 60 percent to 90 percent before cameras can be considered.

Note that NHTSA research shows only 0.4 percent of crashes at signalized intersections also involve a right on red turn, and this percentage includes both drivers who made a full stop and those who did not. That research shows only 0.06 percent of all crashes with injuries or fatalities also involve a right-on-red-turn, and that tiny percentage also includes both drivers who made a full stop and those who did not.

Attached is an Excel chart showing the difference in using a 1.4 second perception/reaction time (PRT) in the ITE formula (or 1.0 plus a 0.4 second grace period). Since about 60 percent of all through movement violations occur in the first half-second, the 0.4 difference will tend to reduce violation rates by about 50 percent, as happened in 2013 when Florida made this mandate to use 1.4 for the PRT.

Posted speed limits at camera locations are often 7 to 10 mph lower than the actual 85th percentile approach speeds of free flowing traffic under good conditions which makes the yellow intervals another 0.5 to 0.7 seconds too short. Cities and the camera companies know this, so timing yellows for the under-posted speed limits is a material part of their for-profit business plans. There are a lot of documented examples where cities added 1.0 seconds to yellow intervals (as Georgia mandated) and got 70 percent to 90 percent reductions in the violation rates. And, contrary to false claims by the camera companies, the violation reductions are permanent, the rates do not rebound as drivers get used to the longer yellow intervals.

The for-profit camera companies and most of their for-profit city business partners strongly resist “Shall” requirements to set adequate and fair yellow intervals because they drastically reduce the revenue, sometimes below the basic costs of using the cameras. And virtually no cities will use red-light cameras that lose money, when the total fines are lower than the costs of the cameras.

Cities could claim they followed the outline and the generic fairness principles in the paper, and still issue most tickets for split-second violations and safe slow rolling right-on-red-turns by safe drivers—none of which endangered anyone. The for-profit ticket camera companies and most of their for-profit city business partners will use any loopholes necessary to make and keep the cameras profitable above their typical costs of $4,000 to $5,000 per month per camera.

We believe AAA should actively and publicly oppose all red-light camera programs that do not make the engineering changes to prevent most inadvertent split-second violations, and to prevent ticketing slow rolling right-on-red-turns when the video evidence does not reveal a failure to yield the right-of-way or some other hazardous action.

But, so far, these requirements are not in the AAA position. AAA does not actively and publicly oppose most of the red-light camera programs that are run primarily for profits.


Jim Walker

Not an NMA Member yet?

Join today and get these great benefits!