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The Nose

Seeing Amber

Jefferson Jackson Steele

Posted 8/18/2004

The Nose has long outgrown reckless, top-speed driving and measuring road-trip distances by the amount of beer we consume before reaching our destination. So we greeted the red-light camera citation that arrived in the mail last month with great consternation—the Nose does not approve of running red lights.

But the photo that came with the citation showed our car, there in the middle of the intersection of Edmondson Avenue and Cooks Lane, headed eastbound on the afternoon of May 15. We even recalled the circumstance: The damn yellow light had turned red so quickly that it seemed there was no time to stop. We felt burned.

According to the city Department of Transportation Web site, the city currently has 47 red-light cameras keeping an electronic eye out for red-light scofflaws, and 60 more are expected to be installed over the next several years. The gadgets are a revenue bonanza for the city—last year Baltimore collected well over $7 million from red-light camera citations, which cost drivers $75 per infraction. The camera vendor—Dallas-based Affiliated Computer Services Inc.—received a $3.7 million lease deal with the city that nets the company between $11 and $27 per violation.

The city says the cameras cut down on accidents and save lives, claiming it has seen a 60 percent reduction in side-impact accidents on “protected sites.”

The violation notices sent to offenders note how convenient and easy it is to pay the fine by mail rather than taking the time to show up in court to deal with the ticket. But the Nose requested a trial and researched the issue.

The city Parking Fine Section administers the fines imposed from the red-light camera violations. The cameras send the agency a series of tiny photos that show violators’ cars in the process of running a red light. At the top of the photos is printed a black box containing time data recorded by the cameras (which, we might add, is printed in tiny, illegible text). The data shows what time the vehicle approached the intersection, what time the light turned red, and the time elapsed between the pictures. It also contains a figure indicating how many seconds the signal was amber before the light changed to red. In the Nose’s photo, the amber light was on for only 3-point-blur seconds.

Three seconds is the federal minimum time for amber lights—and too short in a 30-mph zone according to the Institute of Traffic Engineers. Traffic engineers use a mathematical formula to set amber times so drivers can stop without locking up their brakes. If the yellow light is too short, the driver hits what is called a dilemma zone: The driver risks getting in an accident if he or she tries to stop and risks being fined if the light is run. A couple of years ago, a Baltimore judge wrote a report that castigated the city’s red-light program for timing some amber lights at a mere 2.7 seconds; as recently as Feb. 6, a different judge was routinely throwing out tickets with 2.9-second ambers, according to a WBAL-TV piece on the issue. There was even a May 11 story in The Sun—whose motoring columnist is unabashedly pro red-light camera—that said a new state-minimum yellow time of 3.0 seconds had been set this spring by the General Assembly.

So the Nose called the city’s Parking Fine Section and was eventually put in touch with a man described as “the only” person authorized to read the red-light camera’s data boxes (we are withholding his name because his boss later said he should not have spoken to us). He said that the data on our citation was typical and that the amber light for our traffic violation was set at the bare minimum of 3.0 seconds. However, for a 30-mph speed limit (which is in place on the span of roadway for which this citation was issued), engineering guidelines require a 3.2-second amber light. Our source at the Parking Fine Section said that the light should have been adjusted on May 7 so that the amber light would last for four seconds.

“Unfortunately, that particular location has a communications problem,” he said. “So when it has a problem it drops back to its default [3.0 second] mode.”

Armed with this information, the Nose went to court prepared to argue our case, but the judge agreed to throw out the violation before we even finished our explanation.

But we were baffled to find that the next guy before the judge still had to pay up even though he ran the same light on the same day. He argued that the amber lights at previous intersections he’d been through were longer (they were each four seconds long, according to his stopwatch), and he expected all the amber lights in the area to be timed the same. The judge didn’t buy his reasoning. He was charged $23 in court costs.

Fred Marc, the Baltimore Traffic Division chief for parking violations, says the guy actually had a point: “It’s very important that amber times be consistent,” he said in an interview after the Nose’s court appearance. “Drivers have every right to expect a certain amount of amber given similar conditions.”

Too bad for the guy behind us in court.

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