Update: How Plan to Reduce Red-Light Running Without Tickets Crashed, Burned

Update: In a post published this past Monday morning, September 12, Denver City Councilman Kevin Flynn said that if city engineers couldn't commit to using new guidelines about the length of yellow lights at intersections "so we don't have to give $75 fines to people who are simply going with the flow of traffic, then I'll be the single 'no' vote" against renewing Denver's contract with Xerox for red-light cameras. See our previous coverage below.

That evening, the contract was renewed by a 10-1 margin, thereby sanctioning a new approach to red-light cameras in the city: Rather than having cameras at four fixed locations, the quartet of devices will be mobile and could turn up at any one of 150 intersections. And yes: Flynn, who cites studies showing that lengthening yellow lights to reflect the speed of traffic rather than the posted limits drastically reduces red-light running, was the only councilmember who dissented.


"I had a very good meeting with traffic engineers," Flynn notes via e-mail, "but in the end, they would not agree to do anything further than continue to study yellow-light timing the way they have been. There are some complicating factors, such as the time devoted to all-red, which clears the intersection before the other street gets a green light. The formula that lengthens the yellow time also results in a reduction in all-red, and our engineers believe that is more hazardous. I showed them numerous inconsistent yellow timings I’ve found all around the city, which studies show induces red-light running — long streets where you get four seconds of yellow at some places, but only three or three and a half at others. That helps to make us a red-light-running city."

Critics scoff at the notion that red-light cameras put safety first, seeing them instead as money-making machines. Flynn, however, doesn't make this accusation.

"I believe we all have the same goal," he allows, "but I believe we can achieve a nearly complete reduction in red-light running without having to issue tickets to people. A wise traffic engineer at CDOT once told me that that if there is a big red-light-running problem at one intersection but not at the next two or three down the line, that’s not a driver-behavior problem, it’s an engineering flaw. I want us to focus on the engineering."

Flynn adds that "some of my colleagues side with me in requesting traffic engineering to conduct a serious investigation of using the newer formula that would lengthen the yellow time, but I did not ask them to join in my protest 'no' vote."

Continue for our previous report.

Original post, 5:40 a.m. September 12: At tonight's Denver City Council meeting, members are scheduled to vote on renewing a contract with Xerox for red-light cameras, and the proposal is expected to pass easily — though perhaps not unanimously.

Kevin Flynn, who represents District 2, stresses that he supports the use of red-light cameras (as well as photo-radar vans to catch speeders), and he likes new mobile technology that will allow such devices to be moved to various areas of need rather than being deployed at the same four intersections. They're currently at 36th and Quebec and three locations in relatively close proximity to each other: Sixth and Lincoln, Sixth and Kalamath, and Eighth and Speer.

But Flynn also thinks such cameras should only be used after other "engineering counter-measures," including tinkering with the length of yellow lights as recommended by the Institute of Traffic Engineers (ITE), have been tried first and failed to adequately improve safety at the intersections.

"If the traffic engineers cannot give me a commitment that they will use the new ITE guidelines that have been proven to reduce red-light running, so we don't have to give $75 fines to people who are simply going with the flow of traffic, then I'll be the single 'no' vote," Flynn says.

There have been multiple efforts to prohibit red-light cameras in Colorado over recent years, with critics arguing that they're used mainly to pad revenues rather than actually improving safety. However, Governor John Hickenlooper has vetoed blanket bans for two years running; he says he'll only sign a measure that limits the cameras to areas near schools, construction work sites and intersections that have been shown to be excessive dangers to drivers, pedestrians and cyclists.

A video shown at a Denver City Council hearing and originally posted by Streetsblog Denver highlights locations that appear to fit into this last category. The clip is said to have elicited gasps from members:

Flynn is concerned about such matters, too. But he points out that "over the past eight years, $7 million has been extracted from my constituents" who commute past the aforementioned red-light-camera-enabled intersections in his district — at least a couple of which are nowhere near the top of the list for generating the most accidents.

Just as important from his perspective is data showing that "signal timing has worked universally" to reduce accidents. And if that's the real goal of red-light cameras (as opposed to simply separating drivers from their money), he feels this approach should proceed deployment of these gadgets.

He's done the research to prove his point. In 2008 and 2009, when he was a reporter for the now-defunct Rocky Mountain News, Flynn wrote a series of stories "on how Denver under-timed nearly all the yellow lights in the city — legal minimum of three seconds, no matter what the traffic speeds were," he notes. "That essentially created a high level of red-light running in Denver. In some of the suburbs that use the more dynamic formula, red-light running was significantly less."

These articles "led the city traffic engineer to do a study of control intersections that found adding a second to the yellow time vastly reduced red-light running," Flynn continues. "One of the four control intersections had zero red-light runners. As a result, that engineer (since retired) embarked on a program of re-timing yellows around the city."

Within the past few years, the ITE has come out with what's proven to be a more controversial recommendation when it comes to the length of yellow lights. Rather than determining yellow-light duration based on the posted speed limit on assorted routes, the ITE suggests timing them according to the actual speeds most of the drivers are traveling, which is typically seven miles per hour faster. If that was done in Denver, Flynn believes the result would be "tens of thousands fewer violations."

This concept bothers plenty of folks, Flynn acknowledges. Critics see the notion as "rewarding people who are speeding," he allows, adding that "one guy called it 'speeder amnesty.' But you don't control how fast people are traveling by the yellow timing. If your interest is in reducing red-light running, you have to deal with the conditions you have, not the conditions you wish you had."

He adds that he's been able to document many roadway corridors around town that allow more yellow time than the posted speed limit would justify — but they have no cameras. "That kind of revelation has been very bad for other cities that had the same situation, making it appear that revenue was more important than safety," he asserts. "If we're already giving more yellow time at other locations, we should not be shortening it at the ticket camera sites."

To illustrate the benefits of yellow-light lengths adjusted to actual speeds rather than posted limits, Flynn shares a series of charts originally created for a paper penned by SaferStreetsLA's Jay Beeber, who served on a California committee on the topic of red-light cameras; California legislators ultimately passed a law requiring that cities in the state use the ITE guidelines. In each example, longer yellow signals resulted in fewer infractions.

Here's one example....

...and a second...

...and a third:

Signal-timing isn't the only way to make streets safer, Flynn points out. He's also in favor of assorted engineering approaches, including bulbed curbs for pedestrians and the use of bike lanes, both of which narrow the roadways for drivers and thereby tend to reduce speeds.

Even so, Flynn is okay with red-light cameras, as long as they're more about preventing accidents than filling the city's coffers — and when Denver officials insist that they feel the same way, "I give them the benefit of the doubt, because I'm so charitable. I want safety. I don't want people to crash."

He also thinks mobile red-light enforcement — there will still only be four cameras, though they could wind up at as many as 150 locations throughout the city — would give a break to his constituents, who he thinks have paid a high price for the current placement of the cameras and questionable yellow-light timing. According to him, the yellow light lasts four seconds at Kalamath, where there are about 6,000 violations each year; the one at 6th and Lincoln is a half-second shorter and results in 15,000 to 20,000 violations per annum.

Getting the council to address this issue before renewing the contract "is a tough sell," Flynn acknowledges. "People just want to move on to the next bill, and it gets too far down into the weeds." But, he says, "if you're really committed to safety, you can't leave in place an unsafe signal time that we know is generating too many violations."

Tonight's Denver City Council meeting gets under way at 5:30 p.m.