Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Open Letter To Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett: Your Short Yellow Lights

Dear Ike Leggett,

The Montgomery County Executive website lists among the guiding principals of your staff "Adhering to the highest ethical standards", "Being open, accessible, and responsive" and "Being Accountable".  If this is truly the case, how can you possibly condone the county's photo enforcement program profiting from red light cameras where yellow lights were set shorter than SHA standards for the past 13 years?

Whether intentionally or unintentionally, the Montgomery County Government did have some red light cameras where yellow lights were shorter than standards set by the Maryland SHA.  So I hope you will do the right thing and insist on setting matters right by refunding the money to motorists who were wrongfully ticketed by your red light cameras which did not meet those standards.
In 2003, the traffic engineers at the SHA set a policy stating that the minimum time for yellow lights in Maryland should be no less than 3.5 seconds and they specified how the ITE formula for computing yellow times should be applied. That policy, as described in Appendix B of the SHA Signal Timing Manual, explicitly states that this was meant to apply to red light cameras.  The tables and formulas in the Signal Timing manual make it 100% clear that a yellow light on a 35mph road on level grade (such as the intersection at Georgia Avenue at Seminary Road) should have a FOUR second yellow time, not 3 seconds, and that ALL intersections should have yellow times of no less than 3.5 seconds.

References:
That policy clearly states that a certain formula is to be used in computing yellow light times, and states that under no circumstances should a speed lower than the speed limit be used when applying that formula.  It furthermore documents that it was the intent of Maryland's red light camera law to apply this specific standard where red light cameras were used.

After I first became aware of traffic signals which had been set shorter than this back in October, the Montgomery County DOT stated that this 3.5 second minimum was only recently "implemented" in 2015.  Members of the press accepted this statement on faith that the policy was only recently created.  When I later learned this standard had in fact been set in 2003, not 2015, the SHA told me I would need to ask the county to explain this discrepancy.  I did ask the county, but neither county DOT nor the MCPD would provide an explanation for this.

The fact is Montgomery County was putting safety at risk by failing to meet SHA signal timing standards.  The SHA signal timing manual states "the yellow change interval should be long enough so motorists can see the indication change from green to yellow and then decide whether to stop or enter the intersection."  To make that determination, drivers need some idea of how long yellow lights will be, they need lights to be timed consistently to a level that gives ALL motorists --- not just those with the fastest reflexes under ideal conditions but ALL motorists under ALL conditions -- adequate time to either stop or go.  Setting a yellow light too short can literally CAUSE a red light running violation.  Short yellow lights increase the rate of red light running, this has been proven in study after study.  A study by the Texas Transportation Institute found that "An increase of 0.5 to 1.5 s in yellow duration will decrease the frequency of red-light-running by at least 50 percent." If Montgomery County could cut red light running at a traffic light by FIFTY PERCENT simply by making yellow lights longer, why exactly would you not do so immediately?

Your Automated Traffic Enforcement Unit has argued this policy did not need to be implemented until the next time the traffic lights were maintained or calibrated.  I don't see why that is the case based on the documents I have read, but the SHA has confirmed to me that the policy was adopted in 2003, over 13 years ago.  Between 2003 and 2015 several yellow lights had been retimed to 3 seconds by the Montgomery County DOT.  These lights did not meet the bare minimum of 3.5 seconds the SHA standard requires, nor did they meet the 4 or more seconds the table in the signal timing manuals call for.


Montgomery County, as a matter of policy, says that they can issue red light camera citations for as little as one tenth of a second after a light turns red, literally a "blink of an eye".  That policy IS intentional.  The images and telemetry from an alleged violation showed a yellow light time, as recorded by your ATEU's equipment, of 2.9 seconds.  Frankly it really shouldn't matter if that time is 2.9 or 2.997 or 3 seconds when the standard set by the SHA is a minimum of 3.5 seconds, when the ITE formula computes a yellow time of over 3.5 seconds at 35mph, and when the table in the Signal Timing Manual calls for 4 seconds.

The fact is that before motorists complained and before the press got involved, Montgomery County had decided to take its good sweet time complying with this standard.   They might NEVER have complied and continued putting safety at risk for years if they hadn't been caught.  When a reporter from WJLA asked the county to speak about this,  NOBODY from the county would speak on camera.  All the county offered were various forms of "we admit nothing".  No tickets were refunded or voided.  The county has accepted no responsibility for this whatsoever.  The reward for the motorist who was the first to have enough courage to speak out about this was simply arrogant statements to not run red lights, followed by lies, followed by having the ATEU manager to tell her that she should not have talked to the press.

The county's refusal to refund or void the tickets is outrageous enough, but their refusal to accept responsibility for failing to comply with safety standards is absolutely infuriating.  Perhaps the scariest thing of all was that engineers at the Montgomery County DOT were completely unaware of other standards in the Signal Timing Manual, such as making allowances for heavy vehicles like buses and trucks.  If the use of "bare minimum" yellow times was being applied across the board for 13 years, one wonders how many other deviations from traffic engineering standards a thorough investigation would reveal.

I asked your Automated Traffic Unit to provide records of yellow light times and related data for violations captured by one of the cameras in questions.  That MPIA request was initially denied, and a second attempt at obtaining the documents was met with a fee for $19,000.  In response to my complaint about this to the MPIA compliance board, a member of your staff gave the compliance board false and misleading information that certain records I requested did not exist.  That kind of obstruction and lack of transparency isn't what people should expect from the Montgomery County Government

Even if the County's failure to apply the SHA standard to these lights was accidental, the Montgomery County Government's decision to "keep the loot" was NOT.  This was a matter of policy, a policy I have seen applied by Montgomery County in the past.
Other jurisdictions in the state have issued refunds when they made mistakes.  College Park did so very recently, when they erroneously issued tickets from a camera where the wrong speed limit was posted and were confronted about this by the press.  College Park didn't bring in a big team of taxpayer funded attorneys to circle the wagons and invent legal fictions so they could avoid returning the money.   They admitted their mistake, refunded the tickets, and moved on.  People accept that mistakes happen.  However failing to admit mistakes and then make things right is something the public should not need to accept from their local government.

Montgomery claims to run a "model" photo enforcement program.  But the measure of a  "Model" photo enforcement program is not their ability to maximize the number of tickets they issue, nor is it measured by the program's determination to prosecute every single citation even when the county failed to hold up its own obligations in the process.  It is measured by how fairly, transparently, and ethically that program is run.

The ethical thing for a "Model" photo enforcement camera program to do is refund or void these tickets.  The ethical thing is not to hide behind the Office of the County Attorney's huge team of over 40+ lawyers who will "make things legal" for you after the fact, and allow the county to keep the ill-gotten revenues these short yellow lights brought in.  The ethical thing isn't to assume the county government can get away with whatever they do simply because private citizens cannot afford to match the resources of the county's taxpayer funded legal machine.  The ethical and fair thing is not to rest assured that defendants going to district court will be unable to afford an attorney who understands the district court's "speed camera day" rules... rules which have been heavily weighted against those defendants.  The ethical and fair thing isn't to say "they admitted guilt by paying the tickets" to those who already paid, when the truth is they simply didn't know about this issue, or were frightened away by horror stories of the kind of "justice" photo enforcement defendants receive in district court.   If you have never watched those hearings in progress, where judges sometimes blow through 50-60 cases in just one hour, then you cannot truly understand how this program you helped to create actually works.

I make no money running the Maryland Drivers Alliance website and never have, and I have no financial stake in whether or not these tickets are refunded.  But as a Montgomery County resident, I DO have a stake in whether or not the County government is committed to following the traffic engineering standards.  I DO have a stake in whether or not the County is committed to running itself in a transparent and ethical manner.  I DO have a stake in whether or not that includes setting things right when the county government has done something wrong, rather than just saying "admit nothing" and circling the wagons with attorneys.

I have tried over and over again since last October to persuade your automated traffic enforcement unit to do the ethical thing in this matter, to no avail.  I am asking YOU, our elected representative, one more time... 


Mr Leggett, please do the ethical thing and refund these tickets.

Sincerely,
      Ron Ely
      Editor, Maryland Drivers Alliance Website
      Montgomery County Maryland
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Contact Ike Leggett and the County Council and tell them to do the right thing and REFUND THE TICKETS!!! 
ocemail@montgomerycountymd.gov
county.council@montgomerycountymd.gov