Congressman signals need for light change

By Ray Stern Of The Arizona Tribune
June 1, 2001

    A U.S. congressman's staff report states the best way to reduce red–light running is to boost the duration of yellow signal lights, an idea that is working at six Mesa intersections.

    House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R–Texas, noted the dramatic drop in Mesa's red–light camera citations since the city changed some yellow light times in November. Mesa has one of the worst red–light running accident records in the country.

    Yet some East Valley traffic experts remain skeptical that a broader application of the idea would reap safety benefits. Some say lengthening yellow lights won't work to cure red–light running because people will drive through red lights regardless. Others say it might have some effect, but would not be worth the increased wait times at intersections.

    “It’s taking time from the greens, causing more delay, causing more congestion, and conceivably it makes the situation worse,” said Steve Ramsey, Scottsdale signal system analyst. “I just don’t want to do it.”

    As the Tribune reported in January, Mesa’s red–light camera citations dropped by more than half after the city added a second of time to the yellow arrow lights at double–laned left turns. Officials then doubted the effect would last as motorists got used to the four–second yellow light.

    But it has. Mesa police said the number of red–light camera citations never recovered from the plummet it took in mid–November at the six intersections where the yellow–light times were changed. At those sites, camera citations went from 1,640 in November to 716 in December. In March, the cameras recorded 734 violations. Mesa police Lt. Steve Farago said he thought the reduction of red–light runners – and possibly of related accidents – was encouraging, but needed more study.

    “The safety of the public is my primary concern,” he said. “If the extension of yellow lights reduces accidents, then we need to extend it.” The Armey report released last week states that similar reductions in red–light running have been noted at intersections in Georgia, Maryland and Virginia.

    The report, “The Red Light Running Crisis: Is It Intentional?” also alleges a controversial reason for why yellow lights are supposedly “too short.” It concludes that transportation officials have changed the formula used to determine the duration of yellow lights so red–light camera companies make more money.

    “The more I look into this, the bigger scam it is,” said Armey staffer Richard Diamond, who helped write the report. That reasoning was condemned by local traffic engineers who say yellow–light times are determined by careful study of intersections and a nationally recognized formula.

    “They are creating conspiracy theories where they don’t exist,” said Alan Sanderson, Mesa traffic engineer. “What's written in that Armey report is misleading.”

    Officials at Lockheed-Martin, the company that provides Mesa with photo enforcement equipment and services, also criticized the idea of an organized plan to encourage red–light running. “It’s absolutely not true,” said Kathleen Dezio, a Washington spokeswoman for Lockheed–Martin.

    However, the company does have an interest in the timing of yellow lights because it gets a cut of each paid ticket. A condition of the contract Lockheed–Martin has with Mesa attempts to prohibit the city from changing yellow lights once a red–light camera is installed.

    The company lost revenue when Mesa broke that condition and lengthened the yellow–light times. Consequently, the city is likely to approve the removal of five red–light cameras that record few violations but are expensive to run. Lockheed-Martin also is negotiating additional “pricing changes” in their new contract with Mesa, to be considered June 6 by the City Council.

    Dezio said company officials don’t like the implication that they value profits over safety, and would now prefer the new contract excludes the condition. “We don’t need it to have a good contract and we would be happy to see it removed,” Dezio said. “But we do need a contract that enables us to deliver a great service at a fair price.”

    Tribune writer Ray Stern can be reached by e-mail at or by calling 480.898.6405

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