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Commentary by James Farley
| Saturday, Mar 22, 2014

JamesFarleyThe city is coming to the end of its five-year contract with Redflex for the management of its red light camera program. The contract expires April 1. We now have a great opportunity to correct some serious problems with our current system.

Before I get deeper into this, please let me make something clear. I am not necessarily advocating for the removal of the cameras. While the removal of the cameras is one option the city has to correct the problems I will address, that decision ultimately rests with the city’s elected officials.

What I am advocating is the extension of the left-turn arrow duration at our intersections from 3.5 to 5 seconds, to match the time of the straight-through yellow at the same intersections.

While the request is simple, the reasons behind it require a less-than-simple and more scientific explanation. That will be done below. The safety of our intersections has to be the No. 1 factor in any decision our city makes.

The city is standing behind the camera enforcement because its statistics show a decrease in collisions caused by red-light running at the intersections that are being monitored.

I have done an extensive analysis of the collision data using the data from the California Highway Patrol’s Statewide Integrated Traffic Reporting System (SWITRS) database and find it inconclusive in giving the cameras the credit for the reductions.

The number of accidents per intersection before and after the cameras is too low to give a meaningful percentage change. The report does not take into account that there are other factors relating to red light running like impaired and distracted driving that cameras have no effect on. Also, rear-end collisions have increased at the camera intersections, which more than offsets any reduction in red-light running collisions.

Even if it were conclusive that the cameras are reducing accidents, we cannot ignore the large number of our citizens and visitors being unfairly cited with a $490 ticket for a red-light violation they were essentially trapped in. The people I am referring to are the left-turning drivers facing a 3.5-second yellow arrow.

In 2010, 96 percent of all violations were for left turns and 74 percent of the total were within 1 second of the light turning red. There are charts available from Redflex on HighwayRobbery.net that clearly show this for the third quarter of 2013. Some of the intersections show zero violations in the straight through lanes.

Here is one chart for one left turn lane (Lane No. 2) from the intersection of northbound Bouquet Canyon Road and Newhall Ranch Road for the third quarter 2013. While this is just one lane at one intersection, you will see the same pattern repeated in most of the intersection charts.


The reason this pattern of violations is happening is not a surprise. It is due to a “dilemma zone” that exists in our left-turn lanes because the yellow arrow duration is too short for the actual speed of the vehicles approaching the intersection in long left-turn pockets.

Drivers caught in this dilemma zone when the green arrow changes to yellow do not have enough distance to stop using a reasonable rate of deceleration before entering the intersection and do not have enough time to enter the intersection before the light turns red. It is not their fault they were forced to enter on red due to the dilemma zone.

Not every driver turning left at our camera intersections will have the yellow light illuminate when they are in the dilemma zone. But many have been caught in the dilemma zone and have gotten tagged with a $490 citation for crossing the limit line only a fraction of a second after the light turned red. These are the folks who are shown in the chart above.

Our city’s left-lane dilemma zone existed before the cameras were installed. In fact, a dilemma zone exists at all long left-turn lanes in the city where the yellow time is set at 3.5 seconds rather than the same time as the through-yellow light. The cameras have actually performed a public service to show proof that the dilemma zone exists.

Unfortunately, the cameras have also caused some drivers to slam on their brakes in order to avoid that $490 ticket. As a result, rear-end collisions are up 16 percent at the red-light camera intersections since the cameras were installed.

The cameras have been in place for at least eight years, yet the city continues to issue more than 8,600 tickets per year. Why have drivers not adjusted their behavior not to run the red light by a fraction of a second in left-turn lanes? The answer is they can’t. To change is impossible, because it defies the laws of physics. This will be explored in some detail below.

Redflex is well aware of the dilemma zone, and it has used this knowledge to fleece these otherwise safe drivers. Redflex and our city are generating a huge amount of revenue from these citations. Our city has a moral imperative to stop citing these drivers and saddling them with a $490 fine.

Next I will get into the science of the dilemma zone at our intersections. Much of this I learned from Jay Beeber, executive director of Safer Streets L.A. He is a research fellow with the Reason Foundation and has recently served on a subcommittee of the California Traffic Control Devices Committee, studying the proper setting of yellow signal times in California. He is a committed advocate for safer streets and reasonable traffic enforcement in the state.

Santa Clarita’s Left Turn Pocket Dilemma Zone Explained

The paragraphs above give a good overview of how the dilemma zone created by the short left-turn arrow is a real problem. This section is intended for the reader who wants a more complete explanation of exactly why the zone exists in our city.

To begin, we need to look at how yellow light duration is determined for straight through lanes. Our city, as most, uses the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) to determine yellow light durations. There is a table in the manual that proscribes the minimum yellow interval based on the speed of the traffic approaching the intersection (not necessarily the speed limit). It is Table 4D-102. Here it is:


I will use the example of a driver approaching our intersections at 50 mph for all comparisons done in this section.

You can see in the chart that the minimum time for the yellow at that speed is 4.7 seconds. I have confirmed that our city used this chart, then added 0.3 seconds, to result in a 5-second yellow interval throughout the city on straight-through lanes. This has worked well for our straight-through lanes. The yellows are the right duration. This is a key reason we see so few red light violations on the straight-through lanes compared to the left-turn lanes.

The values in the table are calculated using the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) Kinematic Formula. While the formula and the table work well for straight through lanes, it cannot be used for left-turn lanes. Drivers traveling straight through the intersection and maintaining their speed throughout their approach need the minimum amount of yellow time listed in the table based on their approach speed. Drivers in turning lanes that are approaching at the same speed need at least the same amount of time.

The physics which control whether the driver is able to stop does not change simply because the driver will later slow down to make his turn once he is closer to the intersection. The physics that determine the yellow time this driver needs is based on the driver’s initial approach speed, not his turning speed. And in a long left-turn pocket, his approach speed might well be the same as the speeds in the through lanes.

However, the left-turn driver, as opposed to his straight-through counterpart, must also slow down to about 20 mph in order to safely negotiate the left turn. This slows him down a bit, and therefore it takes him a little longer than his straight-through counterpart to get to the intersection. So a driver approaching in the left-turn lane needs at least as much time as his straight-through counterpart, plus a little more time to account for the fact that he also has to slow down.

Unfortunately, the MUTCD does not address this situation in detail and leaves it up to the traffic engineer to use his judgment as to how long the yellow time needs to be in turning lanes.

The MUTCD states the minimum must be 3 seconds. It leaves it to each city to determine what is right for its own left turn lanes. Our city has chosen to add 0.5 seconds for “extra safety.” There has been no scientific process used in that determination. Three and a half seconds is just plain wrong for the long left-turn pockets that exist in our city.

As stated earlier, most of our left-turn drivers will go through the intersection without encountering the dilemma zone. However, it is not unusual to have a driver safely approaching at 50 mph in the left turn lane, when they encounter the yellow arrow. If this were a straight-through lane, the table tells us this driver needs 4.7 seconds to clear the critical stopping distance of 343 feet. If the driver is farther away from the intersection, they can safely stop, but if they are closer than the critical stopping distance of 343 feet, they must keep going, and it will take at least 4.7 seconds for them to get to the limit line.

But the signal is set for only 3.5 seconds. The further problem for this left-turning driver is that he must keep going but also must slow down to 20 mph to negotiate the turn. He will actually need more time than the 4.7 seconds, and clearly more than 3.5.

The 3.5-second interval we currently give would work for a straight-through driver going near 34 mph. At that speed, the critical stopping distance is 175 feet. Even if we don’t factor in the slowing required for the turn, we can see that there is a minimum dilemma zone created by the 3.5-second yellow if our 50-mph driver gets that yellow when he is between 343 and 175 feet of the intersection. He cannot safely decelerate here, but choosing to proceed puts him in the intersection up to 1.5 seconds after the light turns red.

Jay Beeber has provided an analysis that breaks down this explanation into the components of distance and time, showing the proper calculations to determine the minimum yellow light time for a 50-mph approach. This scientific approach to the question of what the yellow light duration needs to be should be the way our city makes the determination – not the arbitrary approach that was actually used.

Next we will explore another big problem with our camera enforcement.


We Are Paying Too Much For Our Cameras

Our current contract shows we are paying $4,000 per camera intersection approach per month. There are seven total intersections with a total of 10 monitored approaches. That is a whopping $480,000 per year. The hefty fines being collected are paying for this expense and more. The city is left with a net $98,000 in revenue per year from the program.

Why are we paying $4,000 when cities such as Garden Grove are paying $2,900, or Davis paying $2,500, or Solana Beach paying $2,225? I don’t have an answer to this question. Only our city can answer it.

It now must be noted that if the city implements the suggested increase in the yellow-light duration for left turns, under the conditions of our current contract, the financial pinning for this program collapses like a house of cards. At that point, the city would either need to renegotiate the rate so the program pays for itself, decide to subsidize the program, or drop it altogether.



Our council made the right decision to take the contract renewal back from the city manager and put it on an agenda to give time for issues such as these to be addressed. I am grateful to the council acting on my request at the Feb. 11 meeting and am looking forward to it being addressed at the March 25 council meeting. I encourage our council to make one of the following decisions at this meeting:

• Approve an extension of the contract with the provision that the left-turn yellow duration will be increased to 5.0 seconds;

• Approve a renegotiated contract that allows for the city still to make money, with the provision that the yellow-light duration will be increased to 5 seconds;

• Approve the contract with the provision of giving a grace period of 1.5 seconds to left-turn drivers;

• Increase the left-turn yellow duration to 5 seconds and drop the camera program altogether, as there will be few red-light running violations occurring at the city’s intersections. Use live police officers to enforce red-light and other traffic violations.

The bottom line is that our city needs to take reasonable actions to ensure safe streets. Our law enforcement must include punishing those who run red lights through willfulness or negligence. However, to continue to target the left-turn drivers caught in the dilemma zone in an effort to drive the funding of the red-light camera program would be unconscionable and immoral.


James Farley is a Santa Clarita resident.

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  1. Gene Dorio, M.D. says:

    Great technical analysis James. As most of us are not experts in this area, the City traffic crew might have input improving your analysis. Hopefully, City Council and their staff will see this article prior to their March 25th meeting.

    My questions: Are our sheriff’s still issuing red light tickets at other intersection without cameras, and is the fine also $490? Has the number of red light tickets decreased at non-camera intersections because of the reliance on the cameras? Has there been an increase in the number of accidents at non-camera intersections because drivers know there is no camera monitoring?

    Where can we find these answers?

    Gene Uzawa Dorio, M.D.

  2. HenryDos says:

    A red light camera ticket from ANY city (or the MTA) in LA County, including SC, can be ignored, as the LA courts do not report ignored camera tickets to the DMV. This was revealed in LA Times articles in 2011. Skeptical? Google: Red light camera no consequence.

    Also, no matter where it came from, check to see if it is a Snitch Ticket, the fake/phishing camera tickets California police send out to bluff car owners into ID’ing the actual driver. Snitch Tickets say, at the top, “Courtesy Notice-This is not a ticket,” and you can ignore them, too! Skeptical? Google: Snitch Ticket.

  3. Dennis velintino says:

    Cameras are not reliable witnesses these cameras have done more damage then good.I was in court the other day and this ladie told the judge this is not my car and this is not me driving this car but some how my lic.plate has appeared on some.one elses car.Now the judge tricked her in to a not guilty plea so she.had.to pay 490 dollars and come.back to fight it another day.This means this poor ladie has to take off anther day from work that is two.days plus 490 dollars and it wasent even her car or her druving this car.How did this fruad happen photo shop.This is an outrage and I cant even imagine how many people just payed the photo shoped tickets because they couldnt take.off work.The economy is so bad right now most people are.living pay check to pay check and who the hell has 500 hundred dollars to shell out for a ticket.The fines are not a slap on.hand any more its robbery by cop.if some poor person.could not afford this high of fine they take your license.And now your a criminal because you have to drive to go to work then they take your car and throw you in jail now you arr ine less person paying taxes working functioning in SOCIETY and now in jail then whos footing that bill we are .THIS HAS GOT TO STOP THE FRAUD IN OUR SHERIFS DEPT AND OUT COURTS SYSTEM IS COMPLETELY WRONG THERE IS NO JUSTICE WHEN ITS ROBBING RHE PEOPLE.OF THE LIFE LIBERTY AND THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS THIS IS ONE OF THE MAIN REASONS OUR COUNTRY IS IN A MAJOR DEPRESSION AND IF YOU THINK ITS GOING TO GET BETTER YOUR VERY MISTAKEN THE MAINSTREAM MEDIA IS NOT TELLING THE TRUTH IF PEOPLE DONT.WAKE UP WE ARE HEADED FOR DISASTER!!!IT WILL CONTIUE TILL THE DOLLAR COLLAPSES THEN YOU LOSE EVERY THING I MEAN EVERY THING YOUR HOUSE YOUR RETIREMENTS .

  4. A well written article.

  5. Ckay Walker Ckay Walker says:

    Well written and FYI a left turn ticket is the only ticket I have had since living here in SCV.

  6. It’s all about the money…big brother at its finest…

  7. Greg Brown Greg Brown says:

    $600 once you add in traffic school.

  8. They are unconstitutional get rid of them.

  9. If you stop then you don’t get a ticket and they don’t make any money. Simple solution.

  10. HenryDos says:

    For those who want to know more, the staff report prepared by city staff is available on the city’s website. Just open up the agenda for the council meeting of the 25th and then click on the highlighted link you will find in the agenda.

    Dump them!

  11. Carole Hunt Carole Hunt says:

    Some stop too short which causes accidents and lots of money!

  12. As always, these things need to be taken out. They are a danger, nuisance, and just terrible. This is exactly why the majority of the red light and speeding cameras in Arizona were taken out or deactivated.

  13. As always, these things need to be taken out. They are a danger, nuisance, and just terrible. This is exactly why the majority of the red light and speeding cameras in Arizona were taken out or deactivated.

  14. As always, these things need to be taken out. They are a danger, nuisance, and just terrible. This is exactly why the majority of the red light and speeding cameras in Arizona were taken out or deactivated.

  15. Jay Beeber is a great guy. He understands the physics. For a formal description of how Caltrans engineers make everyone run red lights by setting yellow lights shorter than what physics demands, and by plugging the wrong numbers into the wrong formula, refer to http://redlightrobber.com. You will find CBS news broadcasts explaining the basic problem, and even a short mathematical synopsis in the international traffic engineering journal “Traffic Technology International.”

  16. Joe Kensil Joe Kensil says:

    Great analysis, Mr. Farley. I hope that the city will take the entire analysis into consideration. The 3.5 seconds is the problem.

  17. Cory Davis Cory Davis says:

    James, I just received one of these tickets last week. Do you think I have a chance to fight this ticket using the facts that you have stated on minimum yellow intervals?

  18. Cory Davis Cory Davis says:

    James, I just received one of these tickets last week. Do you think I have a chance to fight this ticket using the facts that you have stated on minimum yellow intervals?

  19. Arif Halaby Arif Halaby says:

    Statistically speaking, a 4 sec yellow solves nearly all the problems

  20. James Farley says:

    I would not count on using this to fight your ticket Cory. The judge would have no knowledge of this. For ticket fighting there are some great websites out there. The resource for the chart above is HighwayRobbery.net. It has a wealth of information on red light cameras in general and specific on how to fight the ticket.

  21. James Farley says:

    We have learned some new information. Violations and tickets issued are down significantly in the last several months. While the specific reason is not known yet it appears to be related to the fact the total cycle time for the intersections was increased in June to accommodate state law relating to pedestrians. A longer green duration could reduce the number of folks who get the yellow in the dilemma zone, and thus, reduce violations. The bottom line is that the city is now losing money on the camera enforcement program. If the city wants to keep red light enforcement they will need to subsidize it with taxpayers money, or renegotiate a substantially lower fee from Redflex. Perhaps dropping the program altogether will be the best solution…

  22. I am a physicist. James Farley is absolutely correct about both the turning driver needing more time, and about a judge not understanding and condemning the accused anyway.

    I used this defense in a class-action lawsuit against Cary, NC. The judge certified the class, but it was too much for the judge to understand the physics and too scary for him to rule in our favor because such a decision would be heard around the world.

    And so the judge stuck down the laws of physics.

    And the only option left is to go to the Board of Engineers. The Board is the government-sanctioned authority to rule on such matters. Then judge cannot rule against the Board.

  23. Teresa Savaikie says:

    Such a good job everyone did getting the red-light cameras taken down, so good of a job that my son was killed by a red light driver just a few months after you all demanded our city take the cameras down one at the intersection of Seco and Bouquet – life is worth it, my sons life was worth it. if only everyone behaved when they drove these cameras would not be needed but unfortunately so many give no thought to what is ahead of them, all so busy getting to and from without a care, a thought or consideration for others

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