Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Montgomery County Red Light Violations Drop 50% After Yellow Light Retimed

Violations issued by a Montgomery County red light camera declined more than 50% after the yellow light timing was increased in response to concerns raised by local media and by the Maryland Drivers Alliance that the light did not meet standards set by the SHA.  However the county government is refusing to issue refunds even after the Office of Inspector General found 13% of traffic signals had yellow lights out of compliance with current Maryland SHA policy.

The red light camera located at Georgia Avenue at Seminary Road was issuing citations for the left turn lane displaying a yellow time of only 2.9 seconds, which is shorter than any yellow light in the US is supposed to be timed at under any circumstances. After further investigation, it was discovered that the Maryland State Highway administration had adopted a policy that traffic signals should be timed according to a specific formula, and that regardless of the calculations no light should be shorter than 3.5 seconds (the formula requires a higher yellow time in most cases where the speed limit is greater than 35mph).

In 2016, county officials refused to talk to WJLA news about this traffic signal on camera, but initially told the station and the Maryland Drivers Alliance that the SHA policy was new in 2015. In fact, this policy had been established in 2003. When the Maryland Drivers Alliance asked the county to explain why they had initially claimed the policy was new, the county Automated Traffic Enforcement Unit (ATEU) manager refused to provide an answer. The county claimed the signal was timed to 3 seconds, not 2.9, however both the Maryland Drivers Alliance, WJLA, and the county's own equipment timed the actual yellow light at slightly shorter than 3 seconds. 

The County has also acknowledged that yellow light times have been calculated by applying speeds lower than the speed limit, which is explicitly a violation of Maryland SHA regulations for timing yellow lights.  This produces yellow light times shorter than what the correctly applied formula would produce if Maryland regulations were followed.  The County has also rounded the results of these calculation down to the nearest half second, when is also prohibited by state regulations.  The net result is that some traffic signals in Montgomery County had been configured with yellow light times for left turn signals shorter than the correctly applied regulations call for.  However the county DOT and ATEU continue to admit no fault in the timing of these lights, citing standards used by other jurisdictions outside Maryland which are less stringent than the SHA's adopted standards.

Under scrutiny from the media, in December of 2016 the county department of Transportation increased the left turn signal yellow time for the signal at Georgia Avenue at Seminary Road to 3.5 seconds. Since then this camera saw a marked drop in violations compared to last year.

Between January 2016 and May 2016, the red light camera at Georgia Avenue at Seminary Road issued 1500 citations. For the same five months in 2017, the first full months after the signal timing change, this same camera issued only 719 citations, a 52% decrease. Every month in 2017 the citation issuance rate was lower than the same month in 2016, according to statistics the county publishes to their website.

Most other cameras were not retimed and did not see a similar large decline during the same time period.  You can see the original red light camera data reports taken from the Montgomery County Website here:

Numerous studies have shown that longer yellow light times significantly reduce the rate of red light running, and that in fact a short yellow light can literally CAUSE a red light running violation.  In this particular case, the 50% reduction in violations occurred after the yellow time occurred after a yellow time increase of ONLY ½ second in ONLY ONE LANE. 

Based on the reduction in tickets, this camera was producing approximately $11,000 per month more revenue before the left turn signal yellow light was retimed to comply with the SHA's 3.5 second minimum.  For the first ten months of 2016, the camera at Georgia Avenue at Seminary road with the 4rth highest grossing camera in the county.  For the first 5 months in 2017, after the signal timing change, it dropped to the 12th most profitable.

Other yellow light times in Montgomery County may still be set shorther than the properly applied SHA standards. The county government's written statements have defended the application of standards less stringent than the SHA's adopted policies, indicating that this was done at numerous other locations.  A report by the Montgomery County Office of Inspector General confirmed that the SHA policy was in fact adopted by the state in 2003, and concluded that 13% of traffic signals in Montgomery County had times which did not meet the SHA's 3.5 second minimum timing policy. It's not clear at this time whether the OIG investigated whether other times failed to meet the formulas specified by the SHA, in addition to simply meeting the 3.5 second minimum.

The Maryland Drivers Alliance sought to obtain more detailed data than is published to the county website showing “yellow times” and "red times" for individual citations.  This would have documented precisely how many violations were directly attributable to the yellow times at red light camera locations for this left turn signal, and would have made a detailed engineering study into the impact of applying the SHA yellow light timing standards compared to the more lax standards used by the Montgomery County Government. However the Montgomery County Police Department initially declined to provide such data, and has asserted there is no public interest in releasing such data and imposed a $19,000 fee. After we appealed that fee to the Maryland Public Information Act Compliance Board, the ATEU Manager tried to convince the MPIA Compliance Board to uphold the excessive fee, by falsely claiming that data which was electronically stored could only be extracted by individually printing thousands of citations. While the board agreed the $19,000 fee was excessive by 90% after the vendor confirmed they did have the ability to query the data electronically, the Montgomery County Attorney asserted they were not obligated to extract the data from a database even if we paid the fee. As the MPIA compliance board's authority was limited to fees, the matter of our MPIA request remains only partially resolved and has been appealed to the Circuit Court.

Unfortunately if you receive a red light camera citation in Montgomery County due to a short yellow light, you probably have no legal recourse.  Even though the state's red light camera law explicitly states that the agency which times lights is required to ensure that yellow times meet standards “adopted” by the SHA before red light cameras cameras are deployed, the ONLY defense which the Montgomery County District Court generally accepts is if your car was stolen and you can prove it, as this is the only defense explicitly stated in the law.  District Court Judges, who are generally assigned 100 or more cases heard in “assembly line” manner in a single “red light camera day” session, often refuse to hear ANY legal arguments regarding whether it is a defense if a light was improperly timed. The agency has no burden of proof under Maryland law to prove that the traffic signals comply with state law and SHA's adopted standards, and in most cases the ONLY defense which the district court will consider is if you can prove your car was stolen.  Further biasing the court against defendants, a "court fee" is paid only by defendants into the budget of the District Court ONLY if the defendant is found guilty. The Montgomery County Government in particular has worked tirelessly to ensure that the law and the procedures governing citations ensure recipients of photo enforcement citations have no chance defending themselves, even when the government has failed to follow the law.

As for the fines collected at this camera location which have been out of compliance with SHA policies for years, the county government plans to keep the loot and is refusing to issue refunds. Apparently the Montgomery County Government believes that ignorance of the law is an excuse... if you are the government.