As the city of Fairfax prepares next week to become the first in Virginia to resume the use of red light cameras, the history of a county intersection offers an important lesson regarding the area’s first experiment with photo ticketing. Of the thirteen intersections where red light cameras were used in Fairfax County, only the intersection Route 50/Lee-Jackson Highway and Fair Ridge Drive reported a significant accident reduction, according to figures provided in a 2007 report by the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) (see page 75). It is also a location where the length of the yellow signal was both shortened and lengthened, providing a rare glimpse into the real world effects of each.
Back in 1998, Route 50 and Fair Ridge had a serious problem with collisions. About 74,000 vehicles passed through the busy intersection on a typical day, including a significant number of commercial vehicles. VDOT engineers met with representatives of the Fairfax County Fire Department on August 4 that year to come up with an action plan to improve safety at the location.
“They decided to take several steps to reduce the number of red light runners which they felt were a factor in the crash problem,” a VDOT official explained in a 2002 email obtained by TheNewspaper. “These actions included… increase the amber time following the Route 50 through movement to 5.5 seconds.”
The engineers improved the signage at the intersection and improved signal visibility. The 1.5 second increase in yellow duration was implemented on August 12, 1998. The accident situation improved significantly.
About a year later, on October 11, 1999, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors signed a contract with Lockheed Martin IMS (which now does business as Affiliated Computer Services) to issue photo tickets at ten county intersections with the expectation that the company would generate a total of $13 million in citations over the duration of the three-year agreement. Just four days later, the yellow signal timing at Route 50 and Fair Ridge was shortened back to 4.0 seconds.
According to VDOT, the shortening was accidental, but it did prove useful in making the county’s red light camera program appear more effective. The shorter yellow helped the “before” data for the intersection show 362 crashes per year for every million vehicles passing through, placing it back once again among the worst in the county. When the red light camera was activated on February 9, 2001, violations were also high at 250 per month, generating a steady flow of revenue.
Six weeks later, on March 26, 2001, VDOT decided to increase the yellow timing from 4.0 back to 5.5 seconds. The impact was immediate and dramatic. Average monthly violations dropped from 250 to between 20 and 30 per month — a 90 percent decrease. The violation rate remained low until the Virginia legislature shut down red light camera programs statewide in 2005. The number of accidents dropped to a rate of 290, reflecting a 20 percent decrease. Although VDOT’s 2007 report did find that Fairfax County red light camera intersections experienced a 23 percent increase in accidents overall, this figure would have appeared far worse had the Fair Ridge yellow signal not been increased.
Armed with this data, a new group, CameraFraud DC, has formed to challenge Fairfax City and other Virginia jurisdictions looking to install red light cameras once again (visit the group’s website). CameraFraud got its start in Arizona where members next week plan to unveil a petition drive aimed at gathering enough signatures to hold a referendum on ending photo ticketing throughout Arizona.
A copy of the red light camera datasheet for Route 50 and Fair Ridge from February 8, 2001 through April 30, 2001 is available in a 250k PDF file at the source link below.