Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Red Light Camera Manipulation Boosts Crashes and Revenue

Investigation: City Shortens Yellow Light Timing, Cites Thousands of Red Light Runners


By Paul Adrian
Fox News Channel 4 (Dallas-Fort Worth)
Copyright 2007

The drive seemed like any other until Wes Bullock jumped off the highway and drove through an intersection. He says the light flicked too quickly from yellow to red. “I said to my daughter that was a short yellow light, I hope they didn't have cameras or something," Bullock told FOX 4.

Two months later, when that same light turned yellow, Don Endsley decided there wasn't time to stop and went for it. “All of the sudden the light turned red,” Endsley exclaimed. “I say that is way too short. That's too quick."

A camera at Richland Hills’s one monitored intersection recorded both men sailing through red. The intersection is where Glenview Drive meets Booth Calloway Road. The men could see the evidence on the web. But what Bullock saw led him to conclude, “I believe they tricked me into running that red light."

Bullock demanded city evidence to defend himself from the ticket. Richland Hills eventually sent handwritten light timing documents. A note explained that on the day of Bullock's ticket, the yellow stayed lit 3.6 seconds. That didn’t match what he’d seen on the city’s web site. FOX 4 timed the web video used by the city to prove Bullock had run the light. In the video, the yellow is lit exactly three seconds. Bullock contends that if he’d had 3.6 seconds, instead of just 3, he’d have made the light.

Don Endsley successfully made that argument at his hearing and got his ticket thrown out. “She just said that she was dismissing it," Endsley said.

Richland Hills Police Chief Barbara Childress says the city's hearing officer warned her that the yellow light was too short. “We had received some complaints that the light was short,” Childress said, “possibly anywhere from 2.8 to 2.9 seconds."

Childress says she ordered the light changed to three seconds - thinking she was lengthening it. But says she later discovered that the video used to cite the drivers could not be trusted. "What we found was the video that you are watching is not real time,” Childress said. “It's called MPEG, which was explained to me was a compressed format so what you're viewing is a bit faster than real time."

MPEG is a compressed video format used by millions of people, but according to Dr. Leonardo Chiariglione, who created MPEG and heads the Motion Picture Experts Group (MPEG), it does not speed up time. He wrote that MPEG standards contain all the information needed to “preserve a perfect reproduction of time."

When asked who told her that MPEG compression sped up time, Chief Childress responded, “I contacted the company that provides the cameras to see if that's an accurate way to determine the yellow light timing, and they said no, it would be more of an estimate."

Redflex Systems runs the camera program for Richland Hills and 35 other cities in Texas. Vice President Chris Weeks explained, "The video may run faster or slower depending on a person's web browser," but admitted, "it’s imperceptible to the human eye."

While 'imperceptible' doesn't sound like losing half-a-second., the Chief says it was her reaction to the Redflex video that created the only yellow light timing problem. "I had actually reduced the time,” Childress said. “They were already set at 3.5 or 3.6, and when I learned that, I had the company called to reset those at the 3.5 which is a standard set by the State of Texas."

The Chief changed the light to 3 seconds on August 15th. Before that date, when Endsley, Bullock and thousands of others got tickets, Chief Childress contends the light was set at 3.5 seconds. But there was something she didn't know. Endsley says he'd videotaped the intersection before August 15th.

"This is where I got the ticket through the light here," Endsley recorded on his home video. He shot the light on August 14th and the yellow timed 3 seconds. He also shot it on August 11th and once again found just 3 seconds of yellow.

Plus, the city's video of Endsley running the red light on July 28th matches the home video; the light stayed yellow three seconds. And on Wes Bullock's red light video shot June 9th, the yellow is 3 seconds long. So four videos, shot in June, July and August, all before the chief's action, show the yellow staying lit three seconds.

Yet, the city gave FOX 4 two light timing documents, one recorded in March just before the camera started ticketing folks, another a year before, showing the yellow was set at 3.5 and 3.6 seconds

The Texas Transportation Institute found shortening yellow times by one second increased crashes between 125 and 225 percent at studied intersections. TTI spokesman David Willis says cities have to pay attention to details when creating a red light camera program. "Some municipalities have played the game of revenue maximization by reducing the yellow interval when you put the cameras in and of course that drives revenue up,” Willis said. “And people have been very unhappy about that."

Willis was speaking in general, but Police Chief Childress said she was surprised by the success of her city's program. "There were more violations than I anticipated,” Childress said “The numbers were much greater than we anticipated, although I had heard that from talking to other cities that you may be surprised."

In June, July, and August, when the video tape showed the yellow light at three seconds, the camera cited 4738 people for running a red light. But after the city lengthened the yellow to 3.5 seconds, citations dropped 88%. Only 569 people got cited in September, October and November.

Wes Bullock is still trying to get his June ticket dismissed, but he missed his hearing while waiting for the city documents. The chief says he missed his chance.

Red Light Camera Citations at Glenview Drive and Booth Calloway Road

  • Before the camera went live on April 29, 2007, Richland Hills’ city records show the yellow light set at 3.6 seconds.
  • Videotape shows the yellow light at 3 seconds in June, July and August.
  • City records show the yellow was reset to 3.5 seconds on August 28, 2007.
  • After the light was lengthened, the number of red light running citations plummets.

Citations by Month

May 2007 -- 1,905
June 2007 -- 1,440
July 2007 -- 1,911
August 2007 -- 1,387
September 2007 -- 321
October 2007 -- 201
November 2007 -- 47


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