Red Lights for Profit

TAMPA BAY, Florida — A subtle, but significant tweak to Florida’s rules regarding traffic signals has allowed local cities and counties to shorten yellow light intervals, resulting in millions of dollars in additional red light camera fines.

The 10 News Investigators discovered the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) quietly changed the state’s policy on yellow intervals in 2011, reducing the minimum below federal recommendations. The rule change was followed by engineers, both from FDOT and local municipalities, collaborating to shorten the length of yellow lights at key intersections, specifically those with red light cameras (RLCs).

…Red light cameras generated more than $100 million in revenue last year…with 52.5 percent of the revenue going to the state. The rest is divided by cities, counties, and the camera companies….”Red light cameras are a for-profit business between cities and camera companies and the state,” said James Walker, executive director of the nonprofit National Motorists Association. “The (FDOT rule-change) was done, I believe, deliberately in order that more tickets would be given with yellows set deliberately too short.”

See Buchanan and Brennan’s The Power to Tax for an analytic approach and Benson, Rasmussen and Sollars for another example of bureaucratic revenue maximization.

Hat tip: Radley Balko.


A few muti-million dollar lawsuits from victims of red light jumping crashes might reverse this trend.

PS. Do counties / cities / DoT etc. enjoy immunity from class actions? I smell $$$ here.

At $100mil per year, it may take more than "a few" of those lawsuits.

All governments in the United States enjoy the protection of the pernicious doctrine of "sovereign immunity", under which they cannot be held civilly liable unless they deign to. Also, the courts almost uniformly consider whatever is enacted into law as being in the public interest. The Florida legislature could set the yellow time to 1 second if they in Their Infinite and Unquestionable Highness wished to, and nothing could be done about it.

If governments want to increase their revenues, why not just raise taxes?

Does our (allegedly) collective Calvinist mindset lead us to believe that it was our fault only that we got caught speeding, and hence a penance to the state is warranted?

PS- Who wants to take bets on the approval % for appeals coming from those within local government and police forces vs the public at-large. Seems, actually, like a 21st century police shakedown opportunity. I guess the voters of Florida get the government they deserve however.

Because raising taxes gets the electorate upset enough to vote out incumbents.

the government doesn't care about our safety?! just raising more revenue...who would believe such conspiracy theories?! next you'll tell me the IRS is used to target political opponents.

It is raising taxes, just by another name.

Highly regressive taxes, at that.

"A fine is a tax for doing something wrong. A tax is a fine for doing something right." -- Judge Learned Hand

What about sin taxes?

They certainly do. Fines being regarded as a source of revenue should always be regarded as huge red flag for bad governance. Voters ignore this truth at their own peril.

particularly shameful, as it endangers public safety in exchange for filthy lucre. Blood money.

For once, I agree completely with Bill.

You didn't post this from the article:

"Yellow light times are calculated by a complex formula that takes into account variables such as the size of an intersection, the incline/decline of the roadway, driver reaction time, and deceleration rate. But ultimately, the proper intervals come down to a driver's approach speed.

When the Florida legislature approved 2010's Mark Wandell Act, regulating red light cameras across the state, FDOT had a long-standing rule that mandated yellow light calculations factor in either the posted speed limit or 85th percentile of drivers' actual speed -- whichever was greater. The point of the law was to calculate safe stopping times for the majority of drivers on any given roadway.

But in 2011, FDOT struck the "whichever is greater" language from its Traffic Engineering Manual (TEM), reducing minimum yellow light lengths and allowing communities to re-time their signals at RLC intersections."

Corporations would be proud of this subtle yet effective method for increasing profitability: a trivial tweak and revenue increases by a factor of 10 (going by the reported 90% drop in citation rates at some locations when the timing is fixed).

The cost in lobbying to remove three words from the law "whichever was greater" probably exceeded $1,000,000 per word, but the return on investment will exceed $100,000,000, so you can't been that ROIC even with a ponzi scheme, and you don't go to jail for lobbying and writing law for legislatures to pass to boost corporate profits.

Luckily, some of us were already informed of this happening in 2008, as incentives are everywhere, to coin a headline -

'An investigation by KDFW-TV, a local TV station, found that of the ten
cameras that issued the greatest number of tickets in the city, seven
were located at intersections where the yellow duration is shorter than
the bare minimum recommended by the Texas Department of Transportation

The link may not be that surprising to loyal readers, of course -

That seals it. prior_approval is Tyler, trolling himself. We're all part of his experiment.

Now that you mention it, I haven't seen Tyrone for quite some time.

My question is always "who are these people that weren't aware of this 15 years ago?" Or at least the first moment you heard of traffic cameras, anyway.


Texas isn't Florida and that was 5 years ago

Alec lobbies in all States to pass their (Alec) laws to boost corporate profits to Alec members.

Radley Balko is an American treasure.

Isn't this what conservatives have been calling for for decades? Turn the functions of government over to the private sector to cut the cost to taxpayers???

We have several aspects of government which have been privatized and turned over to for-profit corporations which seek to get the inefficiencies out of government:

1. privatize writing laws - lobbyists supply legislatures with the text of bills, a supply of justifications for the law, do the whipping to get the bill through the chamber, and if hearings are held, supply the local city administrators, police, and traffic engineers, saving tax dollars in researching the appropriate officials to testify to the legislators.

2. privatize the traffic engineering to sit the traffic safety and enforcement investments.

3. fund the investment in the traffic enforcement capital without cost to taxpayers.

4. supply the labor to strictly without any racial or ethnic or class bias to enforce the law and issue citations uniformly to all violators under all circumstances without charge to the taxpayers.

5. take all the heat and public ire for the enforcement of the law, without cost to tax payers as long as elected officials stand absolutely firm on the principles of the superiority of for-profit corporations over government in performing flawlessly, and support a tough on crime agenda no matter how weepy the sob stories are.

And all the reductions in cost to taxpayers and higher innovation of private sector over government generates huge profits on what was once a money losing cost to taxpayers.


Isn't this what Progressives have been calling for for decades? Increasing the tax rates to fund greater government and encourage the use of public transit?


They've raised taxes before without the desired effect. Now they risk your life to see if you'll respond to that.

Isn't this what Progressives have been calling for for decades? Increasing the tax rates to fund greater government and encourage the use of public transit?

Yes. For decades conservatives have been calling for local governments to collude with private companies to enact stealth taxes under the guise of increasing public safety.

Not sure if "conservatives" have been calling for that or not, but this is a great example of crony capitalism, a bi-partisan party.

I suspect that if the use of red light cameras continues to increase, we will eventually see civil disobedience in more places, in the form of camera sabotage, be it physical, emf, or software related.

Also, if only a slightly larger number of people who got traffic and parking tickets went to court, the costs and time of enforcement starts to rise to the point where the court system becomes very clogged up.

You should fight every ticket, even if you merely go to court and plead guilty. But take your time, speak slowly, ask for things to be repeated, etc.

The "criminal justice" system in the US is out of control. For numerous examples, regularly read Radley Balko,
Simple Justice ( ), and Popehat ( ).

Our British cousins have been taking part in an admirable sabotage campaign against such devices for some years. Even back in 2003, over 700 cameras had been destroyed.

Why are we letting them upstage us in this aspect of the resistance to tyrannical government? But where is this spirit (also manifested by the fox hunters) in regards to their fascist gun bans and suffocating absorption by the unaccountable grey men of the EU?

Nothing I would like better than to see the heirs of the Saxon yeomen on both sides of the Atlantic rise up and seize our ancient liberties back from the filthy government scum by violent force. Tar, feathers, and bull whips to be liberally applied, with ropes and gibbets in reserve.

For an extra fee I can pay my wheel tax at the same time I get my emissions tested. Maybe I'm too cynical, but before long I bet I'll have to pay it that way, and the extra fee for doing so will be locked in.

Florida is the best state. Speed limits on city streets are 5-10 MPH higher than they would be in any other state and you can usually drive 15 MPH above those inflated speed limits without fearing a ticket...yet there's a camera at every single intersection.

I suppose Florida should hope that traffic accidents at these lights have not increased. If so I suspect there's a nice class action law suit against either the State or the people who made the decision to reduce the time to less than the recommended limit.

My theory is that there will be so many rules, regulations and 'gotchas' in the act of driving that people will flock to robot cars when they are available. Yes, there will be a convenience factor, but people will also reduce their exposure to traffic violations and fines. It is a type of arms race between the citizens and the state.

If robot cars are programmed to always follow the traffic laws (for sake of argument assume any deviations from traffic laws are exceptional events) would we still have traffic patrol officers writing speeding tickets/traffic violations? Would we just instead apply that same "cost" of decreased traffic fine revenue to the vehicle tax?

In most/all states bicycle riders are required to obey traffic signals. You'd think that a yellow light's duration would be required to be at least long enough to allow an average cyclist to safely cross the intersection. But I guess that would make it really difficult to ticket the autos. Oh well, safety first.

No, it's safety second:

Strangely, I disagree with most comments: The rate of exploitation of yellow lights I see is dangerous. Hell, I do it myself on occasion. Make the causers of danger pay. It's all voluntary you know: Don't cruise through or accelerate into yellows and you won't have to pay!

The pragmatic question (not all that matters, of course) is whether it improves safety. That they are dinking with yellow times in contraindication of standards and regulations indicates not. However, we can do a completely black box, objective measure. The purpose of a system would be to reduce wrecks AND to reduce the number of citations. If the revenue is increasing and the wrecks not dramatically decreasing, these things are an objective policy failure.

Exactly what dangers are you referring to? This isn't going to catch more habitual light-runners, it's going to make fine payers out of people who have been driving these roads for years and know the old timings of the lights and now are breaking the law, all in the name of profits. I know for a fact, where I live, that all the lights on a 50 MPH road have a 4-second timer. I also know that the lane divider lines at the intersection are specifically painted so that, at speed-limit, if you are in that zone you are safe to continue and if you are not, you should be able to stop safely. If my state were to quietly change the timers, now making it 3.5 seconds, the people at the tail end of what was the safe zone now get fined for doing exactly what they did safely the day before. They weren't being dangerous, they weren't being excessive, but now they're income for the state.

The lottery is a more "fun" tax. I'd prefer horse racing in my state if they'd allow it. I think the state keeps 10% of horse betting revenue. Probably nowhere near $100 million, but...

You know, everybody complains about how investigative journalism is going down the tubes. The efforts of these reporters should be remembered.

Shortening the time of the yellow light for the purpose of increasing revenue is particularly evil.

In theory, cities started installing red light cammeras to cut down on accidents in the intersection. And they probably do cut down on the particularly dangerous t-bone. But, the evidence shows that the increase in red light cameras has also been associated with an increas in rear end collisions as drivers stop short when the light turns yellow.

If you make the yellow lights arbitrarilly shorter, you will have a sharp increase in stopping short with no decrease in t-bones.

Without knowing anything else we can judge the policy on whether accidents and citations go down over time. If revenue is going up, that is by definition a failed system.

Florida has it right. The crazy long yellows in Nova waste time and gas and encourage yellow light running.

A Sarasota judge is reviewing constitutionality of red light cameras. Judge has not ruled. Check this case out...

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