Monday, February 12, 2018

Legislation Would Require Longer Yellow Light Times

The Maryland Legislature is considering a bill which would increase the minimum amount of time which yellow lights are required to display at locations where red light cameras are in use.

House Bill 204 was sponsored by State Delegate Marc Korman (D, Montgomery County), and would raise the minimum time which a yellow light is required to display to 4 seconds.  Current law is complicated.  A federal rule requires yellow lights to be "between 3 and 6 seconds.  A separate state regulation also requires a calculation to be performed in a specific manner, notably that a formula using "the greater of the speed limit or the 85th percentile speed be used", and a separate SHA policy adopted in 2003 requires that yellow lights be no less than 3.5 seconds regardless of this calculation.   The bill was written in response to a preliminary investigation by the Office of Inspector General which found that the SHA policy had not been consistently applied.

The bill would require that yellow times be more generous, and would explicitly require that yellow lights be no less than 4 seconds regardless of the calculations wherever red light cameras are in use. 

The hearing for the bill was heard before the Environment and Transportation Committee on February 8th.   AAA Mid Atlantic testified for the bill, and argued that the bill would reduce red light running and improve safety for motorists, pedestrians, and cyclists.  The bill was also supported by the Maryland Drivers Alliance, and we noted that study after study has shown that longer yellow lights reduce rates of red light running and improve safety.  We noted in our testimony that it is currently virtually impossible for a defendant to have yellow light timing formulas admitted in defense of a citation without an expert witness, noting that we have observed district court judges who have been assigned over 100 cases in a single two hour session who refused to even look at math calculations for yellow light times, and we proposed an amendment that would have required mathematical calculations to be considered as evidence.

A specific case of an intersection at Georgia Avenue at Seminary Road, where a marked decline in red light running occurred after a yellow light was lengthened by just half a second, was cited as an example.  Prior to December 2016, the intersection had a left turn signal which was configured with a 3 second yellow light, which did not comply with the SHA adopted policy requiring a 3.5 second minimum.  The light had furthermore been timed using a calculation using "the average of the posted speed limit and 20mph" RATHER THAN the requirement spelled out in state regulation COMAR 11.04.14  (Montgomery County does this at NUMEROUS locations, despite guidance to the contrary in the SHA signal timing manual).  After an investigation by the Maryland Drivers Alliance, the left turn yellow was increased to 3.5s in December of 2016.   Data obtained by the Maryland Drivers Alliance showed that a marked decline in violations took place after the light was retimed.
Left Lane RLC Violations at Georgia Avenue at Seminary Road
We have been working since 2016 to obtain data from Montgomery County which would show the detailed yellow times, red times, and lane for violations at this location.  The county had initially denied the request, and then demanded a $19,000 fee which the MPIA compliance board deemed excessive.  The County finally agreed to produce the data in return for a $990 fee.  The data appeared to show that prior to the light being re-timed, out of the four lanes being monitored, more than 55% were assigned to the left turn lane.  After the 0.5second increase, the number of violations assigned to the left lane appeared to have declined approximately 67%.   While correlation does not prove causality, if even a fraction of this reduction were attributable to the yellow light increase that would appear to be a significant safety benefit.  The data further showed that up to another 40% of the remaining left turn red light running violations were within 0.5s of the light turning red, meaning up to another 40% of the left turn violations might also disappear if the left turn yellow was increased another half second to match the 4.0s time on the straight through approach.

Montgomery County has repeatedly asserted there was "no public interest" in the disclosure of this data. No refunds were issued for citations at Georgia Avenue where the signal was non-compliant with SHA policy, despite the fact that the county had been reminded of this policy by an SHA memo  in May of 2015.

No local government officials appeared in person to oppose HB 204.  However the Maryland Association of Counties (MACO), a lobbying organization which represents county governments including the six counties which run red light camera programs, and which often opposes bills which local governments officials are afraid to oppose in person.  When asked by a committee member whether MACO's opposition to the bill was due to possible loss of revenue, MACO responded it was not. The Fiscal policy notes for HB 204 state "Potentially, then,  the  duration  of  some  yellow  lights  could  increase  by  as  much  as  one  second.  Accordingly, the number of violations captured by red light cameras at those intersections may decrease significantly and result in fewer citations."  and also stated "Local  government  revenues  for  jurisdictions  operating  red  light  camera systems  decrease, potentially significantly,  beginning  in  FY  2019."  The observed reduction in left lane violations at Georgia Ave at Seminary Road would work out to about $100,000 per year in revenue for just one lane at one camera location.

The bill is currently before the Environment and Transportation Committee.

Additional Information:
Text Of HB204
Fiscal Policy Notes for HB204
WTOP: MD Bill wants drivers seeing more yellow, not red, at traffic lights
Fox5 News: Proposed Bill Would Increase the Length of Yellow Signals at Red Light Camera Intersections in Maryland