When Montgomery County officials were forced to re-time a yellow light at one Georgia Avenue intersection, red light tickets dropped by more than 50 percent.
The Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA) has strict requirements for timers on traffic lights in the state. These standards are put in place so that motorists can accurately judge when a traffic signal will turn red and slow down or speed up accordingly.
If a traffic light's timer changes from yellow to red too quickly, drivers can unintentionally drive through a red light. In the age of red light cameras, this can be a serious problem. The Maryland Inspector General examined this phenomena and concluded that 13 percent of all traffic lights in Maryland do not meet the SHA's timer standards.
One of those out-of-compliance lights was discovered in Montgomery County, at the corner Georgia Avenue and Seminary Road in Silver Spring, MD. The intersection is one of the city's busiest and it is just south of the entrance to I-495. Conveniently for the city, this intersection also happens to have a red light camera.
The SHA's guidelines provide a formula for devising how long a traffic light should stay yellow. These formulas take into account speed limits and other road conditions to estimate how long it would reasonably take someone stop if a light suddenly turned yellow. However, the State Highway Administration has a strict rule that no yellow light can be shorter than 3.5 seconds. When the light at the corner of Georgia Avenue and Seminary Road was timed using the county's own equipment, the light only stayed yellow for 2.9 seconds. County officials admitted that the light timer was calculated by applying speeds to the SHA's formula that were below the speed limit and starting at the beginning of this year, the light was re-timed to bring it into compliance with the SHA's 3.5 second rule.
After crunching the numbers for the first five months of this year and comparing them to how many red light tickets were issued in January-May of 2016, the Maryland Driver's Alliance
discovered that red light tickets had been reduced in this intersection by more than 50 percent.
In the first five months of 2016, there were a total of 1,500 red light tickets given at the intersection of Georgia Avenue and Seminary Road. During the first five months of 2017 -- entirely after the yellow light timer had been changed -- only 719 tickets were given for drivers for going through a red-light.
Adding a little more than half a second to the yellow light cut the number of tickets in half. In 2016, the red light camera was the county's fourth most-profitable camera. After the timer was adjusted, that intersection's camera is the county's 12th best revenue producer.
While it is unclear when the traffic light was originally shortened, it is clear that hundreds of drivers were forced to pay tens of thousands of dollars out of pocket because the County violated Maryland State Law.
Many might suspect that this has led to hundreds of successful appeals. After all, if someone was ticketed for blowing through a red light that itself was illegal, surely there should be some recourse, right?
Wrong. In Montgomery County, and Maryland as a whole, it is next to impossible to beat a red light ticket. The only tried and true way to beat one is to prove that your vehicle was stolen when it drove through a red light. That is because while State Law does require yellow lights be no shorter than 3.5 seconds, the relevant statute lists having your vehicle stolen vehicle as the only legal excuse for going through a red light. The law does not afford defendants to challenge traffic light timers in court. Many traffic court judges won't even let defendants mount a legal defense for red light violations.
But the data shows something even more valuable. Politicians pitch red light cameras to communities as a tool to reduce red light violations. The logic is that fewer people will speed through a light if they know they are being watched by a camera. That should, at least theoretically, lead to fewer traffic fatalities. If red light cameras truly are put in place to save lives and not to fill city and county government coffers, then why not add another half a second to the yellow light timers?
This data alone shows that adding an extra second to the yellow light reduced red light tickets by more than 50 percent. By the County's same logic, that means half as many possibilities for a fatal crash.
But it does seem to be about the money. The only way for motorists to get their money back from this scam would be for Montgomery County to issue refunds to everyone ticketed for blowing through the Georgia Ave -- Seminary Road light. However, at this point, the County has not mentioned any plan to do so.