Current News | February 13, 2017

TRAFFIC SIGNALS: Fremont, Calif., got caught doing something shady

Documents show city boosted red-light camera profit $200,000 per month by shortening yellow time

In Fremont, Calif., merely shaving 0.7 seconds from the yellow-light timing at a pair of intersections a year ago led to the city's private ticketing vendor, Redflex Traffic Systems, generating nearly $200,000 a month in extra citations over the course of nine months.


Originally, the intersection of Mowry Avenue and Farwell Drive and the intersection of Mowry Avenue and Blacow Road each had a 4.0-second yellow time. In August 2015, the city had no choice but to boost the timing to 4.7 after the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) applied new signal-timing regulations requiring the use of realistic speed estimates when timing lights. Then the city decided in February 2016 to switch the traffic survey used so that it could lower the speed limit and slash the yellow back to 4.0 seconds at both locations.


Increasing the yellow time by 0.7 seconds in 2015 slashed the number of tickets issued at Farwell Drive by 77%, and shortening it back to 4.0 seconds in February 2016 caused a 445% spike in ticketing. At Blacow Road, the change to a 4.7-second yellow slashed violations by 68%. Shortening it back to 4.0 seconds sent violations skyward by 883%. In November 2016, the city decided to switch back to the 4.7-second yellow time for undisclosed reasons.


City leaders are fully aware of the impact that a small change in yellow time can have on citations. In 2010, a local activist, the late Roger Jones, asked Caltrans to investigate the signal timing at the intersection of Mission Boulevard and Mohave Drive. Caltrans agreed with Jones that the timing was too short and ordered Fremont's engineers to boost the yellow from 4.3 to 5.0 seconds. The number of monthly tickets issued at the location immediately plunged and stayed down by an average of 77%, while in the rest of the city the average number of tickets issued did not change. In fact, the city formally recognized that the cameras by themselves did nothing to reduce violations.


An April 2016 study by DKS Associates commissioned by the city showed traffic volume dropped after the installation of cameras at all four photo-enforced intersections that were studied. The study also confirmed that the use of cameras provided no safety benefit despite the $5.7 million worth of tickets issued at that intersection alone.


After the yellow-light time was increased at Mission and Mohave in 2010, Redflex began ticketing people for making right hand turns on red. By 2014, right-turn tickets accounted for 71% of the citations issued. Fremont's contract with Redflex expires at the end of June.


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