Yellow lights and red-light cameras

A red-light camera monitors the North Service Road

A red-light camera monitors the North Service Road of the LIE at Ronkonkoma Avenue in Ronkonkoma. (Oct. 28, 2010) (Credit: James Carbone)

Judy Cartwright

Judy Cartwright Judy Cartwright

Judy Cartwright writes the Community Watchdog column

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The red-light camera watch continues with readers' questions about yellow lights, malfunctioning traffic signals and emergency vehicles:

Have yellow lights gotten shorter at intersections with red-light cameras?

Several readers believe they have, and some point specifically to signals in left-turn lanes. They expected to have sufficient time to follow other cars into an intersection before the yellow yields to red. Instead, they've wound up receiving red-light camera violations.

Watchdog asked Nassau, Suffolk and New York State if the yellow "clearance times" have been shortened at intersections with cameras. (Remember, there are 50 locations in Nassau and another 50 in Suffolk.) And, while we were at it, we inquired to find out just what goes into the decision about how long a yellow light should be. Some readers have said they expect all yellow lights to have the same duration and are surprised when one ends earlier than they expected.

The state and counties' responses are in unison: That the yellow light times did not change.

The state did not shorten any at red-light camera sites here, according to Department of Transportation spokeswoman Eileen Peters. All cameras in Suffolk are at intersections involving state roads.

"The yellow change interval was reviewed at all intersections with red light cameras and found to be appropriate," Peters said.

As for Nassau: "No yellow times have been shortened," a spokesman said.

But some yellows are shorter than others, and that's leaving some readers seeing red. Officials defend the practice, saying yellow clearance times are based on several factors.

The duration "is set in accordance with the recommendations of the Federal Highway Administration and Institute of Transportation Engineers," said Peters. The determination considers "average driver reaction time, approach speed, approach grade and average deceleration rate."

Or, in other words, how much time is needed to stop in a given location. The longest clearance time allowed by the Federal Highway Administration is 6 seconds; the shortest, 3 seconds. If the prevailing traffic speed is fast, more time is needed.

As for lights at left-turn lanes: A 3-second yellow arrow is not unusual, according to Suffolk's Traffic Engineering Section, which offers this explanation: The shorter time is typical in intersections where the turn lane and through lanes have green lights that begin simultaneously. At such sites, a vehicle's approach speed in the turn lane is expected to be low because the driver commonly either starts from a stop or has entered the lane behind cars inching forward.

 

How about equipping traffic signals with countdown clocks, similar to pedestrian crosswalk timers?

One reader, Clinton Schmitterer of Long Beach, has urged Nassau to install such timers so drivers will know how much time they have -- especially when they're driving unfamiliar routes.

Currently, he said, if another driver is close behind when the light turns yellow, "you have to make a split-second decision, either going through the light or stopping . . . I just think that a countdown timer would be safer."

Schmitterer, who got two red-light tickets in the program's early days, has added an interesting idea to the conversation, but there are impediments: For starters, "a countdown device is not in the federal guidelines," Nassau's traffic safety educator Christopher Mistron said -- which means the county can't install them.

Mistron, speaking on behalf of the red-light program -- which, let's acknowledge, sends cash into the counties' coffers -- cited what he said is its goal: to "change driver behavior and bring it back to an understanding that the only function of 'yellow' is to warn the driver the signal is going to turn red. It's a signal that they should begin braking."

So yellow lights are aimed at getting us to stop, not to speed up to get through the intersection. For some of us, that may come as a surprise.

 

When a traffic signal malfunctions, and cars are stuck waiting for a green light, will drivers risk a red-light ticket if they proceed? One reader said he sat for five minutes at a red light on Sunrise Highway, the camera flashing each time a driver ventured into the intersection.

If a signal is malfunctioning, "most times it is caught in the review process and no citation is issued," Mistron said. A driver who does receive a ticket would need to go to the county's Traffic and Parking Violations bureau, he said. If the traffic signal is determined to have malfunctioned, he said, the ticket will be dismissed.

 

Another reader asked if a ticket would be issued when a driver enters a red-light camera intersection while trying to clear the lane for an emergency vehicle.

"In the event a violation is received, the individual would need to come to Traffic and Parking Violations, where the judge can dismiss the ticket upon review," Mistron said.

Many such occurrences are recorded on camera, he said, with no violations being issued.