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Debate rages over yellow-signal timing

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NEW PORT RICHEY -

Some critics are seeing red over yellow signal timing at intersections with red-light cameras. State transportation officials urge people to proceed with caution because of confusion over the hot topic.

Red-light cameras once again polarized opinions last week. People ponder if public safety or revenue motivates cities and counties that rely on automated enforcement if a driver runs a red light.

Courts might get the final say as reviews continue over constitutionality of red-light camera tickets that cost $158 or more.

State Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, was among lawmakers last week who asked for clarification of yellow-signal timing from Florida Department of Transportation.

Fasano got a reply that timing varies with speed limits. A road with a 45 mph speed limit should have a yellow signal lasting 4.3 seconds. The yellow signal should last 4.7 seconds where a road has a 50 mph speed limit.

“There are not different rules for intersections with red-light cameras,” FDOT officials reassured Fasano.

Doubts still linger about timing patterns, according to Fasano. Lawmakers need “to be more aggressive to make sure it’s a level playing field,” Fasano said Friday.

A New Port Richey official weighed in on the topic Friday. The city uses red-light cameras at intersections along U.S. 19 at Main Street, Cross Bayou Boulevard, Gulf Drive, Marine Parkway and Trouble Creek Road.

“We have no say over cycle lengths,” Robert M. Rivera, the New Port Richey assistant public works director, emphasized in an email.

“The city has red-light cameras in place, but that was with the permission of FDOT,” Rivera added. The state agency owns the signals and contracts with Pasco County to maintain them.

Last fall, city police officers had commented that they believe the cameras have helped decrease side-impact traffic crashes caused by red-light runners.

Port Richey officials did not comment at this time about the controversy.

Port Richey records, however, show the city issued 557 red-light camera citations from March 23 through April 26.

Port Richey sent $83 from each ticket to the state, which reaped $46,231. The city keeps the rest and pays operator American Traffic Solutions.

Meanwhile, Port Richey leaders are watching appeals of red-light camera tickets on constitutional grounds.

Port Richey helped pioneer use of the cameras years before state lawmakers authorized their use in 2010 and took a cut of the revenue.

Both Port Richey and New Port Richey city officials nervously watch court reviews of the constitutionality of the tickets. An adverse ruling could impact local budgets. In the meantime, state lawmakers tweaked the process by letting cities handle the appeals of tickets.

“I have great concerns still,” Fasano said. “I’m not the biggest fan of red-light cameras.”

Indeed, as far back as 2005, Fasano had characterized the devices as spy cameras. “I have a big problem with Big Brother looking over your shoulder as you drive down the street,” he commented at the time.

Fasano seeks some balance. “We want public safety. No one should go through a red light, no one.” On the other hand, he dislikes government coming to rely on revenue from citations. Nor does he want transportation leaders deviating from federal guidelines on signal timing.

FDOT officials have insisted they act consistently. Policy is based on standards in the state’s Traffic Engineering Manual and from the Institute of Transportation Engineers.

FDOT remarks last week were similar to an April 2011 phone interview of Mark C. Wilson, an FDOT traffic operations engineer based in Tallahassee. Companies operating red-light cameras do not control traffic signal timing. The state carries the sole responsibility for the timing of traffic signals on state roads,

Wilson argues that adding time to the yellow signal will cause drivers to develop bad habits. Motorists soon will realize that the yellow signal is staying on longer and they might be tempted to try to dash through the intersection.

The automated devices ordinarily can help reduce right-angle crashes, Wilson thinks. “It depends on the individual intersection” whether rear-end collisions might increase, go down or stay about the same after red-light cameras are installed.

“Yellow clearance is based on an ITE handbook,” Wilson said about timing. “That is an engineering calculation. Just adding extra time to that, then you’re not doing it on an engineering basis.”

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