City Yellow Lights Too Short, Judge Says Before Tossing Red Light Tickets

PrintSome of Chicago’s yellow lights are too short, according to an administrative law judge who said he’s thrown out “60 to 70 percent” of red light camera tickets he’s come across recently because of the discrepancy.

The city uses the state and federal standard of having yellow lights display for a minimum of three seconds at intersections. But an administrative law judge, who hears appeals from motorists ticketed by red light cameras, said during a hearing this week that he has seen evidence that yellow times are slightly beneath that at some Chicago intersections with red light cameras.

The hearing at 400 W. Superior lasted three hours Monday, after the city sent three lawyers and several department supervisors to defend five tickets being challenged by Barnet Fagel, a video forensic specialist who helps drivers fight red light and speed camera tickets.

Three attorneys, a law department supervisor, a public information officer and a Chicago Department of Transportation deputy director overseeing the city’s traffic camera programs showed up to what normally would be a brief, attorney-free affair. Typically, drivers try to persuade administrative law judges that their ticket should be thrown out by presenting photos and other evidence.

But Monday, city attorneys Alexis Long and Tom Doran spent the first 30 minutes of the hearing challenging Fagel’s expertise and his ability to testify in these matters on behalf of the motorists who were ticketed.

Read more at DNA Info.

19 Responses to City Yellow Lights Too Short, Judge Says Before Tossing Red Light Tickets

  1. Jeff says:

    “Three attorneys, a law department supervisor, a public information officer and a Chicago Department of Transportation deputy director overseeing the city’s traffic camera programs showed up to what normally would be a brief, attorney-free affair.”

    The city is obviously running scared here, with recent stories about red light spikes, numerous legal challenges to the red light camera system, and an embarassing bribery scandal surrounding the awarding of the red light camera contract to Redflex Traffic Systems. The fact that an ALJ called bullshit on the city’s yellow light claims is just the latest body blow to a system that now faces substantial opposition.

  2. I traveled to Chicago from Michigan to observe the hearing on Monday.

    The judge, Robert Sussman, was VERY fair and very patient to listen to all the arguments on both sides before ruling that the amber/yellow intervals were too short on the particular red light camera cases judged on Monday AND on many more red light camera citations that he has judged recently.

    With the massive bribery scandals involving the former contractor Redflex, the extensive list of questionable tickets being reviewed after the Tribune investigation of the unexplained spikes that the city and the contractor could NOT have failed to notice when they were happening, and the many tickets being dismissed with illegally short yellow intervals – the entire Chicago red light program should be permanently ended.

    Chicago residents need to contact their Aldermen and the Mayor’s office to demand a permanent end to the red light camera program. Half a billion dollars collected with so many questions and problems is ENOUGH.

    James C. Walker, Life Member – National Motorists Association

  3. pkdickman says:

    Hey doctor,
    How about a blow by blow?
    The only thing I like more than making zoning lawyers sweat, is seeing city lawyers sh!t bricks.

  4. Saucexx says:

    Ha!

    How many times have we heard from the City that yellow times are not short. How many sycophantic ATA and Streetsblog posters have babbled on and on in the City’s defense. Well now here’s the proof. And by the sound of it, Redflex covered up the fact when they controlled the system. It’s only a matter of time before some one ends up behind bars. And the City should be forced to give back every penny they’ve skimmed from the residents of Chicago.

  5. Donald Knox says:

    The City Manager in charge of reviewing the tickets processed by IBM from the RLC’s was heard to joke at the last Christmas Party that the only “Legit Tickets” issued by the RLC’s are for Illegal Turns on Red. And that the 2.5 to 3 second Yellows are deliberately not being changed even though it would be a simple line of code text change into the Database that controls the Signals.

  6. Greg says:

    So let me see…the city sent 6 people fight 2 tickets which would have resulted in $200 in fines, at a cost of what was surely well over $200, given that 3 were lawyers…

    And how did the city even know about this? Out of the hundreds they see every day, why these tickets? Could it be perhaps that Barnet is very vocal and they want to shut him up?

    And apparently the video shows proof that the yellows are under 3 seconds – video proof – and the city still denies it? I guess facts are the enemy of the city…

  7. Jeff says:

    Greg:

    Anything the Emanuel administration tells you about traffic safety is 100% horseshit. For example, the out and out fraud (about red light cameras and traffic safety) that City Hall put on to justify speed cameras in Chicago:

    http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2012-03-14/news/ct-met-speed-cameras-statistics-20120314_1_red-light-cameras-emanuel-administration-traffic-deaths

  8. Jeff says:

    Geek gets a shoutout from the Trib:

    http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/watchdog/redlight/chi-chicago-redlight-camera-hearing-20140812-story.html

    “Fagel appeared at the hearing with support from the anti-camera group Citizens to Abolish Red Light Cameras, which issued a news release Tuesday describing Sussman’s rulings. A story about the hearing by the Expired Meter transportation blog first appeared on that blog and on the website DNAinfo.”

    Finally, the Trib gives the Geek the credit he is due. You see — there is a bright side to “obsessive-compulsive disorder” after all.

  9. to all, I and other parties are working on a script dialog based on the official record which I am requesting under a FOIA to go out by close of business today.

  10. Lynn Stevens says:

    I think this calls into question “prima facie” in red light tickets.

    I’m also interested in how the city knew about this hearing in order to attend, and am annoyed at the poor use of my tax dollars. One lawyer, ok. Six high paid employees, wasteful!

  11. Jeff says:

    Predictably, many commenters on Streetsblog and other sites argue that a 2.5 second yellow light is just a “technicality” — that a half a second shortage on the yellow signal isn’t enough of a reason to invalidate a ticket.

    As with most of the usual “head up the ass” rhetoric about traffic safety that you find on Streetsblog, this argument ignores basic facts and logic. If you are going the speed limit (30 miles an hour), a half second more yellow light duration gives you 22 feet of additional time to either: (1) conclude that you will make the light and continue; or (2) stop and wait until the light goes red and then green. This added 22 feet can only inure to the benefit of road safety.

  12. The Parking Ticket Geek says:

    So nice to hear from you Lynn.

    Let me give you some perspective that will further infuriate you.

    The maximum amount of the 5 tickets would have been $500 (actually it’s a bit less).

    Thousands, if not tens of thousands of dollars in legal time was spent on fighting what are the equivalent of parking tickets.

    It’s not just wasteful, it’s outrageous.

  13. Drew says:

    Jeff et al…

    Streetsblog and their Pavlovian followers wouldn’t complain about the time of a yellow light until such time as they get an RLC in a under 3 second intersection.

  14. Lynn Stevens says:

    Geek,

    Ha! I initially typed “outrageous!” but in light of recent national/world events decided to tone it down.

  15. Jeff says:

    Drew:

    The Streetsbloggers are the first to complain about bad drivers, all the while making excues for the muhc greater percentage of bikers who violate traffic laws – blowing stop signs, runnings red lights, and cycling the wrong way down one way streets. Logic and consistency are not their strong suits.

  16. Ivan Ben Thair says:

    The citizens need to put it on a ballet to vote to have all the red light cameras removed like the citizens in Houston did. It is much less stressful (and safer) to drive in the city of Houston now that all the camera have been removed. The city is suppose to use a big portion of the money to improve traffic flow by improving traffic signal timing and progression, but they never spend close to what they can for improvements to traffic congestion relief. It is just a money maker for the city with no safety or traffic flow improvements and no annual accounting for the money spent solely and traffic improvements. As far as speed cameras, traffic engineers normally consider areas to be speed traps,if more than 15% of drivers are exceeding the speed limit. That means the speeds should be raised if you have a more that the 15% exceeding the posted speed. Speeds are suppose to be set by traffic engineers using speed studies (not by law enforcement), and the speeds should be set at what is known as the 85TH percentile speed, with data to back it up. The speed studies need to be done with free flowing traffic (only the lead vehicle is recorded) for two hours or 125 vehicles, done in off peak hours to avoid congestion and undo slow traffic. Trial runs may also be needed to make sure it is a reasonable posted speed for the average driver. If they were only giving tickets to 15% then it would prevent the average safe driver in the 85% group from getting a ticket. Reasonable speeds make happy, and safe citizens.

  17. […] issued a news release Tuesday describing Sussman’s rulings. A story about the hearing by the Expired Meter transportation blog first appeared on that blog and on the website […]

  18. Jeff says:

    Ivan Ben Thair:

    Unfortunatley, in Chicago, the Mayor and his stooges on the City Council can block city wide ballot measures they don’t approve of. The only city wide ballot measures they allow are ones that align with their own political interests.

  19. Jeff says:

    Today’s Tribune reports more drivers being ticketed based on short yellow lights:
    __________________________________

    “Shorter yellow times are now the ticket”

    By David Kidwell,
    Chicago Tribune

    A Tribune examination of overturned red light tickets revealed evidence that the city of Chicago has quietly cast a wider net to snare drivers since switching camera vendors earlier this year amid a bribery scandal.

    A before-and-after analysis of photographic evidence and interviews with experts suggests the transition to a new vendor last spring was accompanied by a subtle but significant lowering of the threshold for yellow light times.

    City hearing officers have noticed the trend and are increasingly tossing tickets because the yellow light time stamped on the citation is less than the 3-second minimum required by the city, the Tribune analysis showed.

    Xerox State & Local Solutions took over the program in March. Since April, hearing officers have cited short yellow lights as the reason for throwing out more than 200 of roughly 1,500 rejected red light tickets, according to their written notations. In the four years before that, under the old vendor, judges blamed short yellows only 37 times out of more than 12,000 successful appeals, according to their written notes.

    It’s a rate 50 times higher than when the old vendor, Redflex Traffic Systems Inc., ran the program.

    “Right now we are having a big problem with these red lights, and the city needs to get this straightened out,” administrative law judge Robert Sussman said during one hearing in August where he tossed two successive red light camera tickets because of short yellow times.

    “I am getting 60 to 70 percent of my Xerox photos that come up, they are under 3 (seconds),” Sussman said. “When the city starts getting this stuff right, I will start finding liability again like I was doing before. But right now, I just can’t do it until the city becomes more reliable. … Something is going on here. I mean this has to be taken care of.”

    City officials said the yellow light times being rejected by judges as too short are in fact valid because they fall within an allowable variance that is caused by fluctuations in electrical power.

    “It’s showing 2.9, it records 2.9 on the data bar as you see on the violation,” Transportation Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld said in a recent interview. “But that actual performance is probably 2.998 — or something like that — where the variation is in the hundredths or thousandths of a second, which is imperceptible.”

    Scheinfeld said Xerox made a business decision “to truncate” the measurement as it appears on the ticket to a tenth of a second, “and that is all well within the national standard for any type of allowable variance.”

    Asked why Xerox had so many tickets with yellow times below 3 seconds when Redflex tickets — which showed measurements to the hundredths of a second — almost never showed a time below 3 seconds, Scheinfeld declined to answer, citing an ongoing investigation by the city’s inspector general.

    Slight deviations in the duration of the so-called amber interval can have a powerful effect on how many drivers are caught by red light cameras.

    In the course of uncovering troubling and unexplained spikes involving tens of thousands of tickets during Redflex’s tenure, the Tribune reported in July that it found hundreds of cases where yellow light times fluctuated between 4 and 3 seconds. But the Redflex tickets rarely went below 3 seconds, the newspaper found.

    Officials at Xerox and Redflex declined to be interviewed for this report, referring all questions to the city.

    Asked why hearing officers hired by Emanuel’s administration to enforce the traffic laws are routinely throwing out the tickets if the time is allowable, Scheinfeld said the hearing officers are independent.

    Gail Baikie was among the drivers who won because of short yellow times. The security guard was ticketed twice within 20 minutes on May 18 on her way home from work.

    “I am really disappointed with the city, and upset that they would try to take advantage of people like that,” said Baikie, 38, of Skokie.

    Both tickets were overturned by an administrative law judge because the yellow lights were too short, records show.

    “I didn’t even know about the 3-second rule,” said Baikie, who appealed both tickets by mail arguing that she made two legal right turns. “I really think they need to fix this because so many people just pay these things without even thinking about it. That’s just horrible.”

    Administrative law judges have thrown out 1,511 tickets from April 1 through Aug. 20, according to city records. In 222 cases, they noted in their written explanation that a yellow interval under 3 seconds was to blame. All but three of those tickets were from Xerox.

    The Tribune found an additional 299 cases in which tossed tickets had yellow lights under 3 seconds but hearing officers did not specify their reasons. They often don’t provide written explanations for rejecting a ticket when drivers appeal in person at a tape-recorded hearing.

    Taken together, that means 521 tickets — more than a third of all those rejected since April — had short yellow times.

    More than two dozen judges cited short yellow lights for rejecting citations, the Tribune found.

    Records show that Sussman cited short yellow times 18 times on Xerox tickets from April through August. Sussman also tossed an additional 32 tickets with short yellow times at hearings in which he cited no specific reason on public records.

    In Baikie’s cases, the hearing officer who tossed both tickets was William Kelley, who records show has thrown out 29 tickets since April because of short yellow lights.

    “2.9 second Yellow. No Prima Facie case. Citizen prevails,” Kelley wrote in the notes field on his computer for both the Baikie tickets in his Aug. 7 ruling.

    In throwing out another driver’s ticket July 29, Kelley wrote, “inconsistent evidence. City photograph shows 2.9-second yellow light. 3 seconds required by law. No prima facie case. Citizen prevails.”

    Similar language was used by other judges in tossing tickets with 2.9-second yellows.

    “Illinois and federal standards for amber signal length is 3.0 secs. And city’s website states its length for amber signal is 3.0 secs,” wrote hearing officer Paul Gridelli in a July 31 ruling. “Since evidence shows city noncompliance w/ 3.0 sec. standard for amber signal, grtr wt. (greater weight) to R (respondent).”

    Hearing officer Daniel Ruiz threw out a red light ticket June 12 with the following reasoning: “Amber light not on for the required 3.0 seconds. Only 2.9 seconds.”

    Hearing officers contacted by the Tribune either declined to comment or did not return calls.

    City officials have not yet complied with a Sept. 5 Tribune request for a database of recent red light camera tickets. Those records would help identify how many drivers were ticketed under short yellow lights.

    Because fewer than 10 percent of all ticketed drivers ever bother to appeal red light tickets, it is possible that thousands of drivers have been dinged for fines they wouldn’t have received before Xerox took over in April.

    A Tribune examination suggests the transition to a new red light camera vendor last spring was accompanied by a subtle but significant lowering of the threshold for yellow light times.

    The city of Chicago sets all its traffic lights based on the shortest allowable time under federal safety guidelines, which suggest yellow intervals ranging from 3 to 6 seconds depending on the speed of traffic.

    For traffic moving at 30 mph or less, the guidelines say the shortest allowable yellow light in order to give drivers enough time to stop is 3 seconds. Scheinfeld said all traffic lights with approach speeds of 30 mph are set for 3 seconds. At 35 mph, she said, the yellow light times move to 4 seconds.

    “That’s what the signal is set for, the actual performance of the signal itself is subject to what I would call imperceptible variations from 3.0 based on the power supply,” Scheinfeld said. “Very minor inconsistencies in the power supply can actually cause the lights to be off by hundredths or thousandths of a second. Imperceptible differences from the setting.”

    Before any violation is finalized, a technician and a reviewer are required to sign off on the evidence, including the yellow light interval. City officials have refused to answer questions about whether the city or Xerox made any changes to the yellow light criteria.

    Chicago’s red light camera program has come under intense scrutiny following Tribune reports about an alleged corruption scheme in which the former top city official who oversaw the contract is accused of taking up to $2 million in bribes since the program began in 2003.

    Those reports prompted Mayor Rahm Emanuel to fire Redflex and hand the contract over to Xerox.

    In July, after a 10-month review that included an analysis of more than 4 million tickets, the Tribune reported about a series of suspicious spikes in red light camera tickets at intersections throughout the city that led to tens of thousands of questionable tickets. The Tribune’s probe found evidence the spikes were caused by equipment malfunctions, human tinkering or both.

    Inspector General Joseph Ferguson, who is working with federal agents investigating the corruption allegations, is also probing the potential causes of the ticket spikes. That investigation is looking at the possibilities that equipment malfunctions, changing enforcement criteria and short yellow times contributed to the wild swings in ticketing.

    Tribune reporter Alex Richards contributed.

    dkidwell@tribune.com

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