Red Light Traffic Ticket Problems May Be Due to Outdated Timing Formula


Red light traffic tickets frustrate and anger drivers. They’re in place to maintain safety on the roads, but all-too-often drivers find themselves in a moment-of-no-return at a yellow light, when to stop would infringe on cars behind and to proceed would increase the likelihood of a ticket. Red light traffic tickets are supposed to be the exception rather than the norm so traffic moves efficiently. But the instant between yellow and red lights can also cause frustrations and create traffic problems, too.

Sequencing of traffic lights is based on a decades-old formula that includes speed limit, road surface, and human reaction time. The equation that results gives traffic controllers a window of time before a yellow light should turn red, usually in the three to five second range.

red light traffic ticket

And it’s not only drivers who must be taken into consideration when traffic light sequencing configurations are programmed. Intersections are filled with a variety of transportation modes beyond cars and including pedestrians, bicycles, buses,  trucks, and trains. With high levels of activity in shared spaces, intersections must accommodate the varying characteristics of each mode to avoid conflicts and collisions.

According to The Institute for Transportation Engineers (ITE), multimodal characteristics are the basis for most intersection design standards, particularly for safety. ITE’s National Traffic Signal Report Card points to five areas that must be taken into consideration when creating well-integrated traffic signals: proactive management, coordinated signal systems, individualized intersections, detection systems, and maintenance.

In a time when “traffic dollars are stretched thin,” the ITE claims that “traffic signals are a bargain.”

The ITE currently recommends a traffic light timing that came into practice in the 1960’s and was based on the work of three General Motors physicists, according to Wired. “Most traffic engineers tend to stick with ITE practices just because they don’t want to go into court and say they’ve done something different,” says Anuj Sharma, a traffic safety researcher at Iowa State University.

However, a 2014 research report suggests that the yellow light zone may be the most dangerous of them all and needs traffic light retiming:

“The yellow light dilemma zone is widely known as an area on the high-speed intersection approach, where vehicles neither safely stop before the stop line nor proceed through the intersection during amber interval. Within such an area, a vehicle might be involved in a right-angle crash or rear-end collision.”

It is that right-angle that has risen again in discussions of red light traffic ticket debates and is the source of industry disagreement. If drivers were excepted from red light traffic tickets due to a particular traffic context like the right turn, perhaps safety in intersections would increase.

Indeed, the ITE is conducting a peer-review analysis of its traffic signal timing guidelines as a way to determine if today’s multimodal traffic intersections and red light traffic tickets deserve a 21st century look.

Photo credit: Laurent Moose via / CC BY-ND


About the Author

Carolyn grew up in Stafford Springs, CT, home of the half-mile tar racetrack. She's an avid Formula One fan (this year's trip to the Monza race was memorable). With a Ph.D. from URI, she draws upon digital media literacy and learning to spread the word about sustainability issues. Please follow me on Twitter and Facebook and Google+
  • jcwconsult

    This email went to the Board trying to squash Mr. Jarlstrom’s free speech rights.
    To All the OSBEELS Executives:

    The Oregon State Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land
    Surveying is desperately trying to protect the ability of their
    engineers to deliberately set too-short of yellow intervals on traffic
    lights so the cities that employ those engineers can rob safe drivers
    with red light camera fines that are very profitable. If Mr. Järlström
    can get a discussion of why the yellows are often set too short into the
    official records, then the money grab racketeering with too-short of
    yellow intervals might have to be shut down in Oregon.

    In reality, any engineer that sets too-short of yellow intervals on
    the lights at camera intersections should lose their license to

    Putting camera revenue above safety is criminally wrong.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • kvleeuwen

    Roundabouts rule.

    • kevin mccune

      I like roundabouts and actually non timed traffic lights increase the likehood of accidents in my opinion , one city, fairly near where I live used to have coordinated timed lights , hit one light green , drive the speed limit and everyone else was paying attention , you never had to stop again , it was uncanny , these stoplight cameras and so called “smart lights ” keep everybody jumpy and the unnecessary lights really conjest things , I realize the necessity of “traffic control” as long as it exercised properly , nothing is more frustrating then tardy lights at a poorly planned intersection , we have new intersections in VA , that actually seem to help matters a little , at first glance they are crazy by normal standards , soon the logic of their design is apparent . Nothing is more annoying then the eyeblink yellow lights , because traffic does not march, each vehicle usually starts on its own .