Our inquiry into this matter began when many people noticed red light cameras in Montgomery County flashing with no obvious explanation, and that this was happening frequently. WTOP inquired of Montgomery County Police, and police spokesperson Captain Paul Starkes stated that "It's a warning flash" and "It's something that is meant to get the driver's attention".
"In our opinion", Montgomery County's explanation (to put it as politely as possible) does not accurately explain the situation. One does not send 'warnings' to vehicles from behind. And to do so would be a completely non-standard traffic signal under the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices.
It turns out that cameras in Montgomery County which were deployed by the City of Rockville under their contract with Xerox Corporation(formerly ACS State and Local Solutions, the same contractor Montgomery County uses), have now been configured to ticket for right turns. And in order to capture images of slow-moving right turns, they likely needed a lower threshold for taking photos. Indeed if you read Rockville's page on red light cameras it states:
"If the speed of a vehicle at a certain distance prior to the stop bar is at or above a pre-determined threshold speed, then the cameras will initiate the photo sequence to photograph the vehicle prior to the stop bar and again once the vehicle has fully entered the intersection on a steady red light."
Clearly these are not "warning flashes"... the device is taking photos. Despite the typical narrative which photo enforcement programs only photograph people who break the law, red light cameras frequently photograph non-violators, because othewise they could not capture the first image which must be taken before entering the intersection. Citation reviewers are supposed to sort them out later. And in order to ticket for right turns, they need to make the device more sensitive... thus photographing more non-violations, and more 'flashes'.
Making a right turn on red is legal in Maryland, however it is required by law to stop prior to the white stop line (as per transportation article 21-202 section i).
HOWEVER, there is no indication that it was ever the legislative intent of the state's red light camera law to ticket for slow moving right turns. If you read article 21-202.1, you will not see ANY mention of right turns. It refers to 'That the driver of the vehicle passed through the intersection in violation of § 21-202(h) ', but never specifically mentions turns. Likewise if you look at the original fiscal policy notes for the legislation, you won't see any reference to right turns, it refers to 'red light running', not making turns. Furthermore, the statute states "(c) This section applies to a violation of § 21-202(h) of this subtitle at an intersection monitored by a traffic control signal monitoring system." and the citation (as directed by law) specifies that the citations are a violation or article § 21-202(h). § 21-202(h) is the section of the law which refers to red light running. Right turn violations are specifically addressed under article § 21-202(i). One could reasonably make the argument that red light cameras were introduced in order to ticket for straight through violations, but that they were not originally intended to be used for turns.
The fact is that red light cameras were sold to the public on the basis of combatting deliberate straight-through red light running, which have a natural deterrent for most people that value their own safety. However slow moving right turns on red are extremely unlikely to cause accidents. One study showed that an average motorist could drive a billion miles, the distance from Earth to Jupiter and back, before being involved in an accident that resulted from a motorist making a rolling stop on a right-hand turn.
Moreover, with vehicles moving at single digit speeds, a driver could quite possibly believe they had stopped from their perspective inside the car... the only perspective they have to work with at that time.
We filed a public information act request with Rockville for information about how many of their red light camera violations are due to right turns, but they have stated they do not collect this information. However in other jurisdictions where photo ticketing for right turns is done, right turn violations VASTLY outnumber straight-through violations. In LA, for example, right turns constituted 80% of all violations. In a recent case in Knoxville, when the state banned the practice of ticketing for right turns the number of citations city wide dropped 87% from 58,000 to 8000 for a 6 month period, indicating how many of their violations were in fact coming from turns. So far our anecdotal information indicates that the number of right turn on red tickets being issued by Rockville may be huge.
Here are some examples of the alleged violations which Rockville has issued tickets for recently:
You can judge for yourself whether these were safe turns. In each of these instances, the motorists had slowed to single-digit speeds, and had adequate time to confirm that yes, the way was clear. With several of Rockville's right turn on red cameras, such as on Gaither Road and Gude Drive, there is not even any cross-traffic to worry about... traffic only comes from vehicles making right turns which can easily be seen.
In our opinion, the idea of creating a vast network of surveillance devices to catch non-dangerous technical violations was not how red light cameras were sold to the public. The legislative history for the state's red light camera law makes no mention of turns whatsoever and does not indicate this was the intended purpose. To sell photo enforcement to the public under one set of assumptions, and then use it to enforce a different and much less serious technical violation, is a typical "bait and switch". If that is what red light cameras were going to be used for, it should have been stated from the outset, and it was not.
A policy like this, which is bound to issue vast numbers of tickets to motorists with long safe driving records, should have been widely announced prior to its introduction. We cannot find any indication that this was done or that signage was changed near the cameras to accurately describe the city's camera policy.
This is where we like to remind people that when voicing complaints about matters of POLICY they should contact elected officials in the City of Rockville or the state legislature. Calling the phone number on the citation(which is answered by a contract), or to police(who only implement policy) will simply result in the complaint vanishing into the ether. It is NOT appropriate for elected officials to forward complaints about a matter of policy to police, and people should complain loudly if they do.
Additional Data 09/27/2012:
In a 1995 report to Congress, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) said the relative impact of right-turn-on-red(RTOT) on traffic safety was "very small".
The NHTSA concluded that based on nationwide data from the FARS (fatality analysis reporting system) "less than 0.2 percent of all fatalities involved a right-turning vehicle maneuver at an intersection where RTOR is permitted. FARS, however, does not discern whether the traffic signal was red." and therefore the number occurring on red was likely to be far less. Examining data from four states (including Maryland) which specifically recorded whether accidents occurred during a turn on red, the study concluded that:
Even these numbers included accidents occurring on any right turn on red, including those which were not 'rolling turns'. In fact their data suggests that the risk posed by right turns on red is so small that the percentage of accidents involve cars making RTORs may actually be several times lower than the percentage of accidents where cars were turning right ON GREEN.
- Right-Turn-On-Red crashes represent a very small proportion of the total number of traffic crashes in the four states (0.05 percent).
- RTOR injury and fatal crashes represent a fraction of 1 percent of all fatal and injury crashes (0.06 percent).
- RTOR crashes represent a very small proportion of signalized intersection crashes (0.4 percent).
The NHTSA concluded that "there are a relatively small number of deaths and injuries each year caused by right-turn-on-red crashes. These represent a very small percentage of all crashes, deaths, and injuries. Because the number of crashes due to right-turn-on-red is small, the impact on traffic safety, therefore, has also been small."