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Virginia: Proposal Eliminates Safety Check on Red Light Cameras
Virginia legislative proposal allows cities to use the shortest possible yellow time at red light camera intersections.

Delegates Bouchard and Mathieson
A bill introduced last week in the General Assembly quietly seeks to eliminate a significant motorist protection built into Virginia's existing red light camera law. The proposal of a pair of Democratic state delegates representing Virginia Beach, Joseph F. Bouchard and Robert W. Mathieson, would delete just three words from that statute, but the change would have wide-ranging effects. Under current law, cities that want to install traffic cameras must first submit a detailed engineering justification to state transportation experts.

"A locality shall submit a list of intersections to the Virginia Department of Transportation for final approval," Virginia Code Section 15.2-968.1(J) states.

House Bill 2416 would delete the phrase "for final approval," eliminating oversight by the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) entirely. Many lawmakers reluctantly voted in 2007 to allow the operation of red light cameras only after a handful of provisions were added to ensure municipalities did not simply install automated ticketing machines as a means of obtaining easy revenue. To date, the most powerful of these provisions has been this oversight power which has already been exercised in turning down proposals by the cities of Virginia Beach and Leesburg as unsafe.

VDOT has been careful regarding red light cameras because its own studies in 2005 (view study) and 2007 (view study) showed that accidents increased significantly at the intersections where red light cameras were operational in Virginia. Because VDOT does not share in the revenue generated by a camera, unlike a municipality and its private vendor, lawmakers saw the agency's participation as an essential third-party check on municipal designs.

VDOT has also been burned in the past by aggressive participation in local red light camera programs. In 1999, the agency shortened the yellow signal duration at a Fairfax County intersection by 1.5 seconds just four days after county officials signed a contract to install red light cameras. Accidents and violations increased dramatically. When VDOT lengthened the signal back to 5.5 seconds a year later, accidents and violations dropped immediately and decisively (view full details).

Shortened yellows are the key to the financial success of red light camera programs. Confidential documents from the private vendor now operating as Affiliated Computer Services (ACS) show that employees were only allowed to install red light cameras at intersections with yellow times of "less than four seconds" and "downhill approaches" (view documents). A Texas Transportation Institute study confirmed that when the yellow light timing was increased one second above the bare minimum amount recommended by the ITE formula, accidents dropped 40 percent (view study).

Bouchard and Mathieson's proposal would give Virginia Beach and other municipalities the freedom to ignore any engineering improvements -- especially lengthened yellow timings -- recommended by VDOT.

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