A City’s Guide to Profiting from Poor and Unsafe Engineering Practices!

California Senate Hearing Testimony

By Chad Dornsife,
National Motorists Association
August 28, 2001

I want to thank the committee for inviting me to testify today on photo and other electronic enforcement technologies, from a traffic safety and engineering perspective.

What has been lost in the public uproar and debate is the basic fact that for a red light camera or a photo radar speed enforcement system to be viable, there must be an underlying traffic safety engineering deficiency. At every location that we have examined to date, without exception, this has been the case.

Traffic signals and speed limit signs are federally regulated devices whose use is regulated under Title 23 of the US code.

This law is called the Highway Safety Act of 1966. Title 23 and its designated Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) is where its statutory requirements are articulated. It was specifically passed to provide uniform and rational traffic control devices based on sound engineering principles, versus political conjecture and arbitrary standards. Its other central charter mandate is that all traffic control in the nation be equally applied under one standard. With each device having a like design, application and placement regardless of state lines or jurisdiction; a system where the motorist is given a single uniform national appearance, meaning and expectation.

Traffic Engineers are licensed professionals; accordingly, they have professional standards they must follow. Further, under the statutory requirements of federal law, they are also required to apply nationally accepted practices as recognized by the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE), FHWA et al. Not personal opinion or local practice.

Under engineering practices and mandated compliance with accepted national standards there is a professional legal requirement to address a wrong. It is called “Notice of Defect”.

Traffic Control Devices Handbook, 1983, FHWA, "Notice of Defect
"An agency has a duty to correct a dangerous condition when that agency has actual or "constructive" notice of the hazard.”

Here’s how the engineering profession expressed it in another way as long ago as 1930. Large numbers of violators indicates an engineering failure rather than an unsafe and out of control public. Here is the 1989 FHWA document that cited the relevant 1930 quote.

"Motorist Compliance With Standard Traffic Control Devices"
Publication No. FHWA-RD-89-103
US Department of Transportation
Federal Highway Administration


"The compliance situation was summarized in a Highway Research Board paper presented by Burton Marsh in 1930 [Marsh, B. (1930). "Law Observance and Enforcement methods", from Highway Research Board Proceedings. V.10, Washington, D.C.]:

"The status of traffic law observance in any community is definitely related to a number of ... factors. Important among these factors are:

1. Reasonableness of traffic rules and regulations. It is well known that good observance can only be expected for regulations which are generally deemed sensible, necessary and reasonable. They should also be as simple and as few in number as possible. The Uniform Vehicle Code and the Model Traffic Ordinance constitute valuable guides to states and municipalities in setting up reasonable regulations.
2. Effective and sensible signs, signals and markings, wisely used.
3. Adequate public understanding and appreciation of traffic regulations, of the reasons for them, of the results to be accomplished, and of methods of proper observance.
4. Uniform, impartial and business-like enforcement.

To enforce traffic laws is to compel obedience of them. The fact that so much compulsion seems necessary is a clear indication of serious deficiency in one or more of the first three factors presented above. Thus, although enforcement should only be necessary for a small perverse minority, it is all too much invoked for large proportions ... The really needed steps to reduce violations are the effective promulgation of reasonable regulations and the education of the public as to the saneness, necessity and value of them and as to how the individual is expected to act in compliance with the said laws."

“These words are still true today. In general, motorists noncompliance is indicative of a problem. The problem may be due to some failing on the part of the traffic engineers or the lack of understanding of the driver, but seldom is the problem a wanton disregard of the law by the motoring public. In light of this and the other conclusions reached, the following recommendations are made."

Electronic enforcement measures are extreme and costly measures. If there are documented large enough numbers of violators to deploy these extreme measures, it is prima facie evidence that a significant Notice of Defect exists at that location. And it is the duty of the traffic engineer to employ all the tools and procedures available to correct this problem first. In most cases, a few hours of time can completely correct the problem with no additional cost.

In reality, the opposite has been found to be true at camera location, in all cases where we have examined cameras installations, these prescribed countermeasures have not been implemented. In fact, the vendors have included in many of their contracts, stipulations to prevent safety countermeasures to assure the profitability of these systems. Moreover, the overwhelming majority of red light camera locations are chosen because of their high volumes of traffic, despite the fact that they have low accident rates, to maximize returns.

The same goes for Photo Radar. It too is always deployed in a manner to maximize revenue, taking advantage of grossly under posted limits and issuing citations to motorists who on the whole are in fact driving safe for conditions.

No matter how noble a press release is on the safety benefits of these systems, in the end, each and every participating city has turned its poor engineering practices into a for profit enterprise. As a tragic consequence, many people continue to be injured or killed unnecessarily while the city profits from its inaction.

For your review, I will give short explanations of why these practices provide no legal protection to those that are victims of the revenue programs and how this makes our roads less safe. What practices can correct this problem and what legislative action could protect citizens from the improper use of police powers for revenue, at the expense of safety.

1.   First and foremost, how did the exploitation of engineering deficiencies become accepted practice? Is there a standard that must be met?

California in effect has no state standards to be met on yellow interval timing. Worse yet, the California Traffic Manual’s signal timing chart is a truncated yellow timing practice thesis proposed primarily by the camera proponents. The ITE to date has refused to say how this became an accepted practices without the required efficacy research and verification process. Why is this important? Because ITE practices have been adopted by reference in the National MUTCD. A standard that requires by law, all adopted practices to go through efficacy research and a verification process prior to acceptance.

Further, in terms of guidance the California Manual offers “recommendations” that are advisory only. No matter how egregious the local practice is … there is no legal standard to be met. This is in essence what the Court ruled in San Diego in regards to yellow timing intervals. Inadequate yellow intervals clearly too short for the conditions were found legal.

There are governing professional and federal standards. However, there are no review procedures to police unsafe practices, nor are federal statutory requirements enforced at this level. Therefore, as in the San Diego case, the engineer’s professional negligence wasn’t ruled on - the violations of their professional license and federal MUTCD statutory requirements. An act of premeditated negligence! Why? Because the city not only did not correct the timing deficiencies discovered in the selection process, they in fact went so far as to shorten 3 intersection’s timing to the shortest allowable under law concurrent with the camera installations. Why? To facilitate his employer’s desire to institute a program where they could assess tens of millions of dollars in fines from unsafe practice and uncorrected engineering deficiencies.

2.   The object is to reduce entries on red, thereby reducing accidents. What is the most accepted practice and how does this compare to the practices deployed at camera installations?

What are the prescribed procedures in setting yellow interval timing? First is an engineering study determining the free–flowing approach speeds of the through traffic. Once determined, the minimum starting point is the indicated yellow interval timing value from the ITE table or timing formula. The last verified practice is found in the 1976 ITE Handbook. These 1976 adopted practice were the culmination of 10 years of field verification of practice to create a uniform national practice.

Next is a quality control check where the engineer checks 10 cycles to count entries on red. This check should be done during peak use periods. If there are 1 or more entries on red during the 10 cycles they should lengthen the yellow interval at least another half second and repeat the process until entries are less than 1 per 10 cycles. Ideally there should be no entries on red through 20 cycles. If the engineer feels they prefer a shorter yellow interval, they can reduce it and check again. The analogy would be an optometrist who says, which is better until it is right. The yellow cannot exceed 6 seconds. This procedure assures that signal timing properly facilitates traffic for the conditions found at that intersection.

This prescribed engineering procedure when applied at several red light camera intersections, reduced entries on red as much as 96 percent. A second or second and half increase in yellow interval timing has reduced the worst red light running intersections to ones that issue less than one citation per day. In San Diego a simple timing adjustment reduced violations at one intersection from 2,262 per month to 205 per month.

Looking at it another way, this one camera to date was essentially able to pilfer in excess of 4 million dollars from the public. This doesn’t begin to address the additional grief in time lost, increased insurance premiums and cost these citations created for the victims of this scam.

From a safety perspective, because of the cameras, the city claimed this was a much safer intersection. Clearly a false claim, because cross traffic was being given a green light, when 25,000 thousand known entries a year on red were occurring by design. At the city’s most profitable intersection where they had shortened the yellow to its legal minimum (3 seconds), they were causing an estimated 40,000 entries a year on red by design purely for financial gain. 40,000 at just one intersection! A very unsafe practice!

This example shows why camera safety proponents and vendors have a dichotomy of purpose here and they make our highways less safe. For intersections, the safety problem here is entries on red. Camera operation incentives are misplaced and promote unsafe practices. For cameras to be financially viable the vendors demand high levels of known entries to exist prior to installation. These same proponents repulse at the thought of adjusting timing with prescribed quality control checks that reduce entries on red.

The often–quoted Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS) in its much heralded poster child for camera safety, it didn’t actually study the Oxnard camera locations. Further, revelations from IIHS show that they may be in fact, a lead cause in the nations red–light running crisis and the associated high fatal accidents. They take credit for spearheading the movement to shorten yellows causing more entries on red (collisions). This movement that undermined sound engineering practices, benefits its benefactors, the red light camera makers and the citation industry. Approximately 25 percent of this group’s sponsors income comes from citation surcharges..

Ironically, another insurance group (AAA) took another approach to intersection safety. In a Michigan test, they fixed the engineering deficiencies found without fanfare or public notice. By applying sound prescribed practices (verified 1976 ITE practice), over the course of the study they were able to document a greater than 50 percent reduction in intersection accidents. No money to made, just safer highways.

3.   Some advocate that we should make all yellows the same. What research has been done in that area?

The conclusions of this research are human behavior and the findings are quite interesting from a safety engineering perspective. Number 3 may be the ultimate answer to red light cameras too. One could simply make the following the standard for red light camera intersections!

HRB Bulletin 330, 1962

“Driver Response to Amber Phase of Traffic Signals, Paul L. Olson and Richard Rothery, Respectively, Senior Research Psychologist and Physicist, Research Laboratories, General Motors Corporation, Warren, MI”

“However, from these data the following conclusions can be drawn:

1. Driver behavior does not seem to change as a function of different amber phase durations.

2. The amber phases observed are too short as measured either by a criterion of driver behavior or a dilemma zone.

3. A constant amber phase of about 5.50 secs would be practical for a wide range of speed zones, with possible variations made to allow for extra wide cross-streets.”

3.   In regards to photo radar enforcement. Again for a camera to be productive it needs large number of violators to be viable. How does this compare with engineering practices and actual camera installations? Are Californians protected from abuse by its Speed Trap law?

No, they’re not protected by the Speed trap laws per say. In 1997 a NMA member came to us for help with a photo radar citation issued in the City of Oakland. Upon review it was found that it was placing these cameras at locations where the studies clearly did not support the posted limits. In fact, this motorist was cited for traveling at the speed the study had found to be the safest. Because this misuse was clearly documented, the Oakland Court refused to process any more photo radar citations. The law worked at great expense, but the thousands before her were not refunded their money!

The per say qualifier? This posting violation by the City of Oakland was not an isolated incident. In case after case I have found traffic engineering studies in California being falsified or done using unauthorized procedures. This includes Caltrans studies where clear violations of accepted practice have been used to reverse engineer a legal finding that is not representative of the sites conditions as found. In some cases, they have not published findings, thereby denying a defense for those caught in these known speed traps. At others, they have not done new studies to allow the old ones to expire, so the lower statutory 55 could be posted. I would be happy to elaborate on this if the committee desires it.

Further, the California Traffic Manual engineering study procedures do not assure an unbiased finding of fact as the starting point. Its requirements assure the opposite, and it is ripe for misuse and more often than not it is misused. Again, I’m more than happy to elaborate. It provides the appearance of protection, while in fact it offers little. Worse yet, there are many examples where these practices have caused high–risk practices to be institutionalized.

To close on photo enforcement, the press just reported on the first 10 days of photo radar in Washington DC. The police were supplied five $100,000 police cruiser equipped with the latest in photo radar technology. These vehicles were supplied at no charge in exchange for a piece of the action on the citations issued. The Chief of the DC police department was counting on (already spending) the additional millions these citations were to generate.

The Police Chief is disappointed with the early returns. Why? Because the five patrol vehicles have only been able to successfully issue 15,000 citations in the first 10 days A significant shortfall of their hoped for rate of 80,000 speed citations a month from this 5 car squad — a million citations a year in DC?

The Washington Times expressed it differently.

washington times cartoon

Translated: The camera vendor convinced the Police Chief of DC, that in addition to the 12 million dollars a year the red light cameras added to the city’s coffers … with these 5 new patrol vehicle he could issue an additional million speeding citations a year in a community the size of Sacramento metro area. Part of this strategy included stationing the camera cars on the highways to catch those passing through the district. They created a Speed Trap that even a writer of fiction would have not dared to propose. But this isn’t fiction – it’s real!

Let’s take a look at what it means on a much-reduced scale, Small City USA. In a rare act of candor in today’s world, a police chief explained to the City Council why automated cameras where not a good idea for their town. The conspicuous fact in this exchange, the subject is money and public tolerance to what levels fines can be extracted, not safety!

The Oregonian
August 23, 2001 Thursday SUNRISE EDITION

Tigard puts brakes on idea of photo radar for speeders

TIGARD -- The city, which had planned to catch speeders with photo radar, says it will not proceed with the proposal.

In documents submitted to the City Council, Police Chief Ron Goodpaster said that in order for the program to pay for itself, the city would need a dramatic increase in the monthly number of speeding tickets it issues, from about 1,900 to 7,000.

“I am very concerned about the public tolerance and reaction of more than doubling the number of speeding citations we issue and the ability for the program to pay for itself,” he wrote.

In Conclusion:

There are enough documented abuses here to write a book. We have a stated national crisis, and those charged with correcting it, have in fact compounded the problem by adopting practices that guarantee more entries on red (read caused accidents) in exchange for money.

In no case when examined, have cameras been used to enhance safety. In every case, their use has immediately digressed into one of revenue generation at the expense of safety. In fact as with San Diego, at one intersection alone the city by design caused up to 40,000 motorists each year to enter on red, after the city had given the green light to cross traffic.

A sad commentary indeed on how money has truly corrupted the process.

Suggested Components of a Red Light Camera Law:

•    A constant amber phase of 5.50 seconds, 6 sec on extra wide cross-streets.

•   A quality control procedure shall be performed prior to the warrant for the installation, and on a periodic audit schedule to assure the signal is operating properly. A camera installation cannot produce more than one citation per 20 cycles. This review shall be a public record kept in writing by the operating authority.

•   All signals at Red Light Camera-equipped intersections shall meet all warrants and recommended ("should") standards described in the Manual on Uniform Control Devices (MUTCD).

•   The minimum yellow light interval shall be 4 seconds for intersection signals on streets with actual 85th percentile approach speeds of 30 mph, or less. The yellow light interval shall be increased 1⁄2 second for each 5–mph increase in 85th percentile approach speeds above 30 mph.

•   Payments to subcontractors, if any, shall be based on the reductions in violations and reductions in accidents and specifically not on the number of citations issued.

•   The baseline for determining Red Light Camera effect shall be determined after all design and operational requirements have been met and before cameras are installed.

•   Any citation based on a Red Light Camera being operated at an intersection that is not in compliance with the installation, maintenance and operational requirements specified herein shall be dismissed and all fines, surcharges, and related assessments collected during the period of non-compliance shall be refunded to all defendants, regardless of plea.

•   All citations issued from the operation of a Red Light Camera shall be postmarked no later than 48 hours from the time of the alleged violation. Notification shall be by certified mail or personal service.

•   The driver of the vehicle, not the owner, shall be responsible for the violation. There shall be no enforcement exceptions for operators of government owned vehicles unless said drivers are engaged in the pursuit of formal emergency duties.

•    For a valid conviction, the photo(s) must clearly depict the driver, the vehicle registration number, the state of registration, the vehicle entering the intersection on a red light, and the time and date of the violation.

•    The registered owner of the vehicle photographed violating a red light traffic signal has no legal obligation to identify the driver of his or her vehicle and the dismissal of charges shall not be made contingent on identifying the driver of the photographed vehicle.

Chad Dornsife, Founder
The Highway Safety Group
775.721.2423 cell – 800.708.5723 fax

National Motorists Association

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