AAA New York’s Red-Light Camera “Study”: Bogus, Flimsy and Dangerous

For an organization that claims to be in favor of red light cameras, AAA New York has a funny way of showing its support.

“In concept, we believe in red light cameras,” said spokesperson Robert Sinclair. But over the weekend, backed only by scant anecdotal evidence, the group claimed that traffic signals with red light cameras in New York City had yellow lights that were too short, and called for changes to how the cameras are used.

Next time it could be your child who is hurt or killed by a driver trying to beat a red. Photo: New York Post

After receiving complaints about short yellow lights at specific locations, AAA surveyed eight of New York City’s 12,460 signalized intersections: three in Manhattan, four in Queens and one in Brooklyn. The group found four intersections that it says had yellow signals lasting less than three seconds. “It wasn’t really a study,” said Sinclair. “It was an ad-hoc survey.”

The city has cameras at 150 intersections. Of the eight intersections it observed, AAA claimed that four signals were up to 15 percent shorter than the usual three seconds. DOT called the claims “bogus,” saying that two of those intersections don’t even have active red light cameras, and that the other two are properly timed.

The narrow scope and anecdotal nature of its “study” notwithstanding, the whole affair got lots of media attention for AAA New York. Already, the Post is profiling “victims” of red light cameras and telling readers to “floor it” whenever they see a yellow light.

Unlike some other states, New York does not set a legal requirement for the length of a yellow signal, which AAA says is a problem. “Whatever it takes — if it’s a city law, if it’s a state law, there need to be some standards put into place,” said Sinclair. The Institute for Transportation Engineers provides a standard that DOTs may use, but it isn’t followed by all jurisdictions.

One issue is whether yellow lights should be set based on the speed limit or the 85th percentile, the speed at which most traffic is traveling. Often, due to driver speeding and road design, the 85th percentile speed — the standard endorsed by the ITE — is above the speed limit. “Everybody’s driving above 30. That’s the reality,” said Sinclair.

Regardless of the tenths of a second that separate AAA and DOT, red light running kills, and cameras have had an impact.

Red light running killed 8,845 people in the United States between 2000 and 2009 — that’s one in ten intersection fatalities, according to the Federal Highway Administration. Nearly two-thirds of those killed in the U.S. by red light runners in 2009 were occupants of other vehicles, passengers in the red light runners’ vehicles, pedestrians or cyclists, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Studies have shown that red light cameras have improved roadway safety, even with the potential for a slight increase in rear-end crashes, which tend to be less severe than the types of crashes that camera enforcement reduces. “Several summary reviews conclude that [red light cameras] reduce overall injury crashes by as much as 25 percent,” said a report published by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

Red light running has fallen faster in cities with the cameras than in cities without them, preventing 159 deaths between 2004 and 2008 in 14 major U.S. cities. If the cameras had been installed in all cities with a population over 200,000, 815 lives would have been saved in the same period, according to the IIHS.

In Texas, red light cameras have reduced crashes by 11 percent, with right-angle (or “t-bone”) crashes, the most severe type, reduced by 32 percent, according to the Texas Transportation Institute.

In 2010, at just 150 of 12,460 intersections, New York City traffic cameras caught a reported 1,053,268 motorists in the act of running a red. As we wrote last August, that figure represents an untold number of unpenalized violations, and approximately 1,053,268 motorists who, if not for the cameras, would have otherwise gotten by with putting other street users at risk. Nevertheless, the Post described City Council transportation committee chair James Vacca as “troubled” by AAA’s reported findings, which the paper falsely played up as an ongoing concern.

Time and again, actual studies show that when drivers follow the speed limit and stop at lights, lives are saved. Perhaps this driver said it best when CBS 2 asked if the red light cameras cause her to slow down: “Yeah, of course. I don’t want tickets.”

  • Anonymous

    The fact that drivers need longer yellow lights for higher speeds because they can’t stop in time is proof that slower speeds are safer and more appropriate for urban areas filled with people not protected by metal cages and airbags.

    Why don’t people get this? If you’re going fast you can’t stop fast and cities are places where unpredictable shit happens.

  • Larry Littlefield

    NYC does have the shortest yellow lights anywhere.  Perhaps educating people that yellow means Stop unless it would be dangerous to do so would solve the problem.

  • Anonymous

    Proof that most adults are not fully grown up.  Pay your damn ticket, slow down – don’t be in such a hurry, and think about more important things.  

  • Joe R.

    I have a better suggestion than red light cams-reduce the speed limit to 20 mph, get rid of the traffic lights entirely, and have all intersections uncontrolled. I can guarantee motorists will be going very slowly and looking carefully at each intersection because there will be a high probability of hitting something if they don’t. “Naked streets” has worked well everywhere it’s been tried.

  • @f9b2cb395abd5a101456b3b0a40912e1:disqus 

    How about we start with educating drivers that “30mph means 30mph”

  • Ian Turner

    @2555783a6f62598b6aadd2d882a4830f:disqus : Yes, and motorists will certainly stop courteously for any pedestrians who want to cross the street.

  • Anonymous

    Red light cameras are nothing but a gigantic scam. The next camera to actually stop am accident will be the first. Im glad we sent those con artists packing. City after city are telling them to pack up their junk and hit the road.

  • Joe R.

    @7c177865bd107a919938355fe93de93a:disqus “Yes, and motorists will certainly stop courteously for any pedestrians who want to cross the street.”

    It seems to work exactly that way every else uncontrolled intersections have been used. The hard fact is traffic lights on balance make things less safe for pedestrians. They encourage speeding for one thing. In fact, they make speeding possible. With uncontrolled intersections you pretty much *can’t* drive faster than about 15 to 20 mph without risking a collision. On the other hand, a string of green lights pretty much means “floor it” to most drivers. I’ve occasionally seen cars going 80+ mph late nights on some of the streets by me. 50 to 60 mph seems to be about average.

    Putting all that aside, I don’t feel the AAA should be taken lightly. They’ve already derailed red light cams in other states using exactly this tactic. They’ll do it here as well. This is why we shouldn’t rely on external means like traffic lights or red light cams for safety. The streets need to be redesigned to be inherently safe. That means narrower lanes, chicanes, uncontrolled intersections and/or roundabouts, etc. The idea is to make things so motorists literally can’t go fast without risking their own necks.

  • Stephen Bauman

    There are so many misstatements and
    omissions in this article that it’s difficult to cite a significant
    fraction of them.

    First, §1680
    of NYS Vehicle and Traffic Law requires NYS traffic control devices
    to conform to standards contained in the Federal Highway
    Administration’s (FWHA) Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices
    (MUTCD). §1682
    requires local authorities follow the New York State’s manual and

    are requirements for minimum yellow time within the FHWA’s MUTCD. The
    MUTCD minimum yellow time is 3 seconds.

    the MUTCD has a lot more to say regarding traffic lights. The minimum
    number facing oncoming traffic, the size of the lights and their
    placement relative to the stop line are also specified. These
    specifications are designed to make traffic lights visible without
    forcing drivers to look away from what is in front of them. My own
    informal survey within NYC has not found a single intersection with
    traffic lights that conforms to these standards.

    effect on any driver or bike rider approaching a NYC intersection is
    that traffic light disappears as he gets closer to the stop line. The
    driver or bike rider has to make a Hobson’s choice: look away from
    what’s in front to check that the traffic light is still green and
    cause an accident due to inattention or to concentrate on making sure
    the intersection is clear and cause an accident because the light has
    changed from green from the last time it was within his field of

  • Miles Bader

    @2555783a6f62598b6aadd2d882a4830f:disqus “The hard fact is traffic lights on balance make things less safe for pedestrians.”

    I’d like to see some data to back that up.  My expectation is that it strongly depends on other factors.

    I’d personally like to see small crowded streets where cars can’t go fast, because there are too many pedestrians and environmental hazards in the way.  In such an environment traffic lights are superfluous and simply annoying for (and ignored by) pedestrians.

    But on wiiiiide boulevards and streets like one has in NYC, even if cars are “careful” around intersections for fear of other autos, they’re not going to be particularly friendly to pedestrians crossing.  I’ve all too often encountered situations where cars act in an aggressive and threatening manner to pedestrians even when they have to stop momentarily; they apparently see pedestrians as an annoyance which is preventing them from quickly getting going again.

    AFAICS, priorities are (1) reducing the speed limit in wide swathes of the city to 20mph/30km/h, and (2) narrowing the streets down to provide dedicated lanes for bicycles / trams / buses / widened sidewalks.  The feeling of a “straight wide open road” has to be the first thing that goes.

    If lightness intersections work in some cases, great, but it’s not something to be done carelessly.  In many cases it’s the sort of thing that would have to come later (after other changes have slowed things down) rather than sooner.

    [I’d also support allowing bicycles and pedestrians to treat red lights and stop lights as meaning “yield” (however much whining that induces in enraged drivers).  Cars and bicycles/pedestrians are not the same.]


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