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While traffic light cameras remain on the Lake City back burner - the conversation continues in Tallahassee

With so many red-light cameras, lawmaker wants longer yellow lights

TALLAHASSEE -- Ever received a ticket from red-light camera after crossing through a yellow signal that seemed too short?

State Rep. Larry Ahern feels your pain.

The St. Petersburg Republican is proposing to extend the duration of yellow traffic signals -- a plan, he says, that will make intersections safer through engineering instead of traffic citations.

Longer yellow lights will give drivers an extra half-second or so to make more careful decisions at intersections, he said.

Tickets for running red lights, including those issued by cameras, would have to be thrown out if the person ticketed could show the light did not comply with the new standard.

The bill, which passed the House unanimously this spring but failed to advance in the Senate, also requires that localities post signs warning of traffic signals ahead on roads with speed limits greater than 55 miles per hour. Ahern has re-filed the bill for the 2012 legislative session.

Current state law sets standards of 3 to 6 seconds for yellow lights based on the posted speed limit. Ahern's proposed new formula for signal timing ramps up the yellow light duration by basing it on the posted speed limit plus 10 percent. The maximum signal duration would remain 6 seconds, but the new formula would increase the signal length at many speeds.

Localities would have until December 2013 to make all lights compliant with the standard -- except for those with red-light cameras, which would have to comply by December 2012.

Observer Links:
6 Cities That Were Caught Shortening Yellow Light Times For Profit

The Collision Over Traffic Cameras
Lake City Report - June 17, 2011

Ahern said he came up with the idea more or less on his own, based on constituents' complaints about red-light cameras and his own experience of not always making it through a yellow light.

"Making intersections safer is, ultimately, the aim of the bill," he said. But he also opposes red-light cameras, having voted this spring for an unsuccessful bill to repeal them. "I believe they are unconstitutional."

Not everyone is convinced Ahern's proposal will improve safety, as he claims.

"If you extend a yellow [signal], people are just going to have more time to run the light," said Hillsborough Sheriff's Cpl. Troy Morgan.

The county's red-light cameras have changed at least some drivers' behavior, Morgan said, as indicated by the falling number of violations since the cameras' installations in 2009. The sheriff's office has been operating 10 cameras at six intersections.

Staff for Ahern referred to a 2001 study from the National Motorists Association. The group, which opposes red-light cameras, reported that increasing the length of a yellow-light signal in Fairfax County, Va., resulted in a drastic decrease in red-light running.

The group also notes a 2004 study by the Texas Transportation Institute, which concluded after studying police accident reports that "yellow signal timing … proved most effective in reducing crashes. An extra second yielded a 40 percent collision reduction."

There may be unintended consequences of longer yellow lights, Morgan said -- more congestion and traffic back-ups at busy crossings. "It's OK until you're the one that has to sit there longer at the intersection."

Re-setting all signals to comply with Ahern's proposal would cost local governments roughly $300,000, according to estimates by House staff this spring.

Hillsborough County is already in the process of upgrading all of its traffic signals to conform with the latest federal and state standards for signal timing. Ahern's proposal expands on those standards, so passage of his legislation could force the county to re-do work recently completed.

Peter Brett, traffic engineering manager for Hillsborough County's Public Works, said the bill appears to be "a knee-jerk reaction" to red-light cameras.

"The Federal Highway Administration conducts extensive scientific studies to determine standards for traffic control devices," Brett said via email.

"I would like to see the research that was conducted to justify revising the yellow clearance time calculations. If that research does not exist and this bill passes, I would guess that public safety liability issues would flood the courts soon afterwards."

The bill also raises concerns about unfunded mandates on local governments, since the proposal carries no money for implementing it, said Cragin Mosteller, spokeswoman for the Florida Association of Counties.

The Legislature typically low-balls the costs for local governments to comply with new laws, she said. "And it's not just about out-of-pocket costs. What other duties are those employees not able to give their needed attention to, in order to comply with the mandate?"

The Florida League of Cities ultimately supported on Ahern's proposal this spring, however, once the lawmaker agreed to drop a costly traffic study requirement.


cwhittenburg@tampatrib.com (850) 222-8382

Read the complete article in the Tampa Tribune here.

Photo credit: Photo inserted by the Observer. Photo from freephoto.com

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