Playing Red Light, Green Light With Citizens

220px-Modern_British_LED_Traffic_LightBelow is today’s column in USA Today. The column was actually written after I went to Chicago for Christmas and experienced firsthand the speed traps created by the city to trap drivers. My home town is a case study of the twisted logic that goes into fleecing citizens. Chicagoans are paying the highest cost for parking in the nation after outgoing mayor Richard Daley Jr. signed away a 99-year-lease to all city meters (and later accepted a job with the firm that negotiated the deal).

Illinois also has the second highest property tax rates in the country; the highest cell phone taxes in the country; and the highest restaurant taxes of any major city. Even if you try to flee the city taxes, you are hit with the nation’s highest airport parking fees in the country.
To put it simply, citizens are tapped out. Instead of raising taxes further, the city decided to find a way to generate revenue and actually blame the citizens. It installed a system of cameras that would make Kim Jong-Un blush combined with the shortest yellow lights in the nation.

Now Emanuel has backed down after years of his Administration dismissing complaints from citizens. His close reelection rather than decency appears the motivation. In the past, his government has defended the patchwork system of lights. Chicago officials insisted that other cities are also using the three-second light, including Boston and New York City. However, in New York, no red light camera tickets are issued until 0.3 seconds into the red light and Boston does not have red light cameras at all (and use the three-second yellows only downtown). However, Chicago is not alone in this perverse revenue grab.

The column is below:

It appears that politicians can see a yellow light when they need to. Facing a close runoff election and a ticked off electorate, Mayor Rahm Emanuel finally relented recently and promised to remove 50 red light cameras that made Chicago the country’s largest speed trap. While citizens have complained for years, Emanuel only saw the light when polls showed he could lose re-election to a relative unknown. However, other (less endangered) politicians are still seeing rigged traffic lights as an easy revenue source.

Rahm_Emanuel,_official_photo_portrait_colorEmanuel first gave Chicago the highest number of traffic cameras of any city, and then in February 2014 he allowed for tickets to be issued under yellow lights that lasted 2.9 seconds. After the practice was exposed by the Chicago Tribune, the mayor returned in September to the three-second minimum, which is set by federal law. But many drivers still complain it is not enough time at 30 miles per hour to get through intersections.

I experienced that fact firsthand when I returned to my hometown for Christmas and faced the patchwork of slow zones all over the city. At three seconds, the light turns red unless you speed to get across an intersection. Thus, if you try to cross the intersection, you can get nailed for both running the light and speeding.

Braking on yellow

I found myself hitting the brakes as soon as a yellow light appeared. I am not alone.

The Chicago Tribune found that these slow zones and yellow lights have resulted in 22% more rear-end crashes that caused injuries. (The study also found that the cameras reduced injury-causing “T-bone” crashes, or right-angle hits, by 15%.)

Nevertheless, cities strapped for cash are turning to speed traps that were once ridiculed as a tactic of rural, small towns. About 500 towns and cities have installed red-light cameras, often through lucrative deals with private contractors. It is an irresistible temptation for many cities and their contractors (who receive a generous cut from fines) to rig the system to generate more revenue by posting speed reductions or shortening yellow lights, or both.

In 2013, Florida quietly reduced the timing of its yellow lights and generated more than $100 million in extra revenue. Likewise, a study of New Jersey intersections found that the contractor had shortened virtually every yellow light below the minimum timing to generate tickets.

The increased accidents in Chicago are consistent with academic studies. One study found that increasing yellow times by just half a second resulted in a decrease in accidents of up to 25%.

Most cities have yellow lights timed at 3.5 seconds. Maryland actually passed a law requiring at least 3.5 seconds; in Baltimore it is 3.6 seconds. Los Angeles and San Diego set their lights at 3.7 seconds and 3.9 seconds respectively. Philadelphia set its lights at four seconds to reduce the type of collisions now common in Chicago.

Devastating to families

This new revenue for cities can be devastating for families. A recent study showed that one in three Chicagoans has less than $250 in the bank every pay day. Yet Emanuel is handing out $35 tickets for six to 10 miles over the limit. If you go 11 mph over the limit, you are hit with a $100 ticket.

In Beverly Hills, one infamous speed trap hits drivers traveling downhill on Wilshire Boulevard with a short yellow light. The city just films car after car getting nailed and sends off a demand for payment. That yellow light, however, is still longer than Chicago’s at 3.3 seconds vs. three seconds.

Ironically, standard contracts in some states give contractors a percentage of the fines — creating “perverse incentives.”

Yet, these traps only succeed as windfalls for so long. In Chicago, while rear-end collisions are up, drivers are now avoiding intersections with red light cameras, and revenue from fines has dropped $50 million. New York City faced a similar shortfall.

That is, until these cities can come up with another way to trap their own citizens.

Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University, is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors.

March 16, 2015

62 thoughts on “Playing Red Light, Green Light With Citizens”

  1. usn420

    So I guess what you are lamenting is that there are more Democrats than Republicans in Illinois and it is grossly unfair that that is why they keep winning elections.

    Democracy is a real bit* ch.

  2. Darren Smith said …

    I might suggest that having a second and a half period where all lights are red during the transition adds to the safety.

    We actually have that feature here at many busy intersections throughout the Detroit Metro Area. Sometimes it seems longer than 1.5 seconds as well. They usually also have the directive: “No turn on Red Light” which is allowed otherwise if traffic is light most of the time.

  3. If you visit Chi Town then do not drive a car there. Do the city transit or take cabs. It is basically a pirate territory. Fly over and flush.

  4. As a former City of Chicago resident who has appeared in court three times to fight bogus red light tickets I say Bravo Jonathan!!! I pointed out to the judges that, from a pure physics standpoint, it is very difficult to stop a 3000 lb vehicle traveling 35 MPH in 3 seconds. I advocated for a 5 second yellow to reduce the number of rear collisions but because this would reduce revenue I was rejected. What a shock. Today I wrote to the USAToday to address this issue. I am published about 50% of the time so fingers crossed on this one….

  5. If i remember right tickets issued for speeding downhill are supposed to almost always be tossed out. For the simple fact its downhill.

  6. @Libby,

    The issue is that if they fixed the yellow lights to appropriate timing, they would get better crash reductions of the sort that generally kills and severely injures people (angled and broadside crashes) without the increase in rear-end crashes.

    Cameras are not a safety item, but merely a revenue generator. When the city I live in increased the yellow time to 4.5 seconds, they determined the cameras couldnt get enough tickets to even pay for their own maintenance and stopped using them.

  7. I might suggest that having a second and a half period where all lights are red during the transition adds to the safety.

  8. Dust Bunny Queen – “But if these cameras save just one life, aren’t they worth it?

    Do they? Do you have statistics how extremely short yellow lights at camera recorded intersections save lives? Or does the extremely short yellow/caution light actually cause more accidents and injury? Perhaps as in Tyger’s illustration the more rational longer cautionary light time would prevent accidents.

    If it saves just one life to cut off all children’s feet so one of them can’t run too fast, trip and hit their head on the concrete curb and die….is that worth it? (I know….stupid analogy. But so is the “if it saves one then everyone should suffer” mentality.)”

    Actually there have been studies done that suggest traffic lights and stop signs cause more accidents than they prevent and if you remove them people will sort out the traffic flow on their own since they aren’t being dumbed down by a sign or light telling them what to do. It is based on the herding and flocks. A town in I believe England removed all their lights and stop signs and saw improvement in accidents and congestion.

    1. If you have ever been at an intersection when the lights aren’t working, you know that we can figure it out without them. I have never seen a problem when the lights are out, as we are all accustomed to taking turns at a 4-way stop, and a solid-light or no-light intersection is handled in exactly the same way. Albuquerque voted the lights out in a referendum. I’ll bet other cities would also. They are like the traffic cop behind the billboard – UnAmerican. They cause far more problems than they solve, if in fact they solve any.

  9. Oh, almost forgot …the Republican guy who first gave us a “temporary” income tax (to pay for Michigan’s cost of the Vietnam War …uh, say what?), as if any income tax is ever “temporary”, was a dude named Romney. Ole Billy Milliken didn’t just make it permanent, he doubled it. Way to go Billy boy…you da champ! Never the less, our current Gov Snyder (R-MI) is going to out do you…just watch.

  10. Darren..I agree with your comments so far…as for the big award you cite…heck, here, we’ll just raise the taxes on something, or create some new ones. Peace Bro 🙂

  11. BTW…it was a long serving born to the mansion (inherited wealth without a days work in the field) Republican Governor of Michigan who brought is both the Single Business Tax (a closeted VAT) and a permanent Income tax. Same Republican dipwad also endorsed John Kerry in 2004. He be me hero, yass indeed.

  12. I can see this red light camera issue coming to a head when a city somewhere gets p0wned by the estate of someone dying as a result of these yellow light times lowered below federal guidelines to generate revenue.

    Yep, go ahead and anger everyone in the county about red light cameras. They might then vow to make it through voir dire by stealth and hand the city a $50,000,000 judgment against it just to exact revenge against money grabbing politicians.

  13. Before anyone jumps on my VAT tax reference….get this: The VAT here had no pass through credits nor any documentation on your receipts. I accounted for and and paid it in my sojourn in the private sector…and resented the checks (only 2 thankfully) I had to write in loss years….e.g., just what income was that check to come from (since there was none)…easy answer…from your savings or at best, retained earnings. It was a pure value added tax with no exceptions, nor deductions for labor input costs, and no notice to consumers of what they were paying…e.g., it was NOT like Canada’s.

    When it comes to abject buggery, Michigan is a national leader and does so in ways that gain little notice. At least the robbers in Chicago and New York seem to wear masks and stick their “fiscal guns” right in your faces. Be grateful. Here…for every one step we take forward, we are assured the next steps will be two backwards. And yet we wonder like deer in headlights where all the business and investment has gone? Gee, I donno…it is a mystery.

  14. When it comes to tax grabs, revenue generation for spurious reasons, and politicians scrambling to get a big piece of the savings on fuels cost reductions of late…think MICHIGAN. Our Republican Governor and Legislature have come up with two new “deals” for us….a 1% increase on Sales & Use Taxes, to generate $1.6 Billion new revenue, and touted as a “roads improvement referendum” but mysteriously only provides 75% of that amount to actual road improvements. There is no provision to reduce the tax when the roads are all fixed….which they won’t be because no one can figure out what MDOT does with the $3.3 Billion they already get….except to know that much of it goes to things not related even slightly to roads per se. Bend over Michigan, our leaders will drive us home like a buffalo mounting a cow.

    Next our fearless leadership wants to increase, by legislation, the fuel tax by 100%+ (18 cents now per gallon to 39 cents per gallon) which everyone knows will not come down when gas prices go back up. Worse, they want it to be taxed at the wholesale level…e.g., you will get no receipt showing the tax….just like now for both state and federal fuel taxes (per gallon)…all at the wholesale level.

    See what is happening here is that consumers are actually saving some of that gasoline cost savings…how dare they!! Harumpth…the very idea. We’re gonna teach all y’all a lesson, you betcha!

    Michigan “Republicans” always reveal themselves as RINOS eventually…and now appears to be the time they are doing so….once again. The difference between Michigan Republicans and Democrats is solely their lapel pins…both which in my opinion should be in the shape of a cow chip to clarify just what it is they stand for in the State.

    I will be voting no and heck no on the referendum on the Sales/Use tax increase, and I will vote against anyone I can who votes in favor of the giant fuels excise tax increase. I’m no longer strong enough and tough enough to just punch out their lights, in both efforts, but if I could I would sure be tempted if I met any of them, D or R…no matter. Same thieves.

    I am a conservative independent, however, I am NOT an idiot….I know when the pick pocket’s hand is not just in my pocket, but grabbing it like a crazed grizzly bear…nearly ripping off my private parts.

    PS: These clowns did finally relieve us of the closeted VAT tax … aka the “Single Business Tax” which effectively taxed labor (not a deductible expense) and was due in loss years as well a profit years. Yay! But now the money sniffing noses (think about a pig digging up truffles) are out looking how to replace it with an even bigger scam.

    No doubt we’ll soon have those traffic light cameras and a 1.2 second yellow to boot….who are thee citizens who think savings when found are theirs’ to keep. We’ll have none of that heah…nosireee.

  15. 1) A litmus test for whether the red light camera is for safety or revenue generation is the yellow timing being reduced or not.

    2) Whenever a politician says “If we could save just one life” his proposed legislation is dubious. When he says “If we could save just one child” then prepare to hand over your wallet and some of your liberty.

  16. The ironic thing about Illinois is that outside of about 4 or 5 counties, the state is pretty conservative. Unfortunately, Cook & Lake counties (Chicago), and Madison & St. Claire counties (St. Louis) have a large majority of the population.

    In fact from what I remember, our last Governor, Pat Quinn (D) won reelection in 2010 by carrying only 4 of 101 counties in the state!

    In 2008 President Obama, former Illinois State Senator, carried only 45 of 101 counties and in 2012 only carried 21… and well over half of those 21 counties were carried by less than 2 percentage points.

    The political reality in Illinois is that only 2 counties are truly needed to win an election… Cook & Lake. Because of those demographic numbers, our entire state is governed by the “Chicago Machine”. There are virtually as many people in the four counties listed as in the other 97 counties combined.

    As others have pointed out, this state has effectively been under liberal control for decades. We occasionally manage to elect a republican governor, but without the house and senate, his hands are routinely tied.

    It is not an accident or mere coincidence that Illinois is near the very bottom of every ranked category except tax rates… there we are near the top!

  17. Libby,

    For me, that is why I am generally not opposed to these. However, red light cameras should be used fairly without “tricking” or “trapping” drivers by reducing yellow-light time or other methods.

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