Red Light Traffic Ticket Problems May Be Due to Outdated Timing Formula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


Carolyn Fortuna

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+