The Fairfax County Yellow Light Scam

January 8, 2009


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.

Source: Red Light Program Data, Route 50 and Fair Ridge


Deadly Red Light Cameras Returning to Virginia

January 6, 2009

Red light cameras are about to return to Virginia, and the City of Fairfax wants to be the first with a shiny, new automated ticketing system. Now is your chance to send a message to all the greedy municipalities in the Commonwealth that we will not sit back and let this happen without a fight. Come and speak out at the next Fairfax City Council meeting.

What: Protest/Literature distribution at Fairfax city council meeting.
When: January 13, 2009 at 7pm
Where: Fairfax City Hall Annex, 10455 Armstrong Street
Google map

Fairfax city council resolution in PDF

Here’s the background on scameras in Virginia. Certain municipalities had the legal authority to use red light cameras in Virginia from 1995 to 2005. They were installed in Alexandria, Arlington, Fairfax City, Fairfax County, Falls Church, Vienna, Newport News and Virginia Beach. The Virginia Department of Transportation in 2007 reported the following effects after an exhaustive study of the first five of those cities:

  • Rear end accidents increased 42%
  • Angle accidents increased 20%
  • Injury accidents increased 18%
  • The total number of accidents increased 29%

Get a copy of the study

The General Assembly at first refused to reauthorize red light cameras in 2005, killing the deadly program — but not for long. Over the course of two years, furious lobbying from the insurance industry (photo tickets carry license points and higher insurance rates in states like California and Arizona) and greedy municipalities led to the adoption of the current reauthorizing statute. Despite the demonstrated failure of this Big Brother program as a safety measure, now any city with a population above 10,000 can have cameras.

The first time around, we didn’t have the data about camera enforcement because the concept was new and untested. Now it’s beyond dispute: this stuff is dangerous. In 2005, The Washington Post found accidents DOUBLED at District intersections with cameras installed. VDOT found massive increases in accidents everywhere (except Fairfax City, perhaps the reason they want to be first — it alone reported a single-digit reduction). View all of the independent studies on the issue.

There is an alternative. In Fairfax County, only one intersection with a red light camera experienced a drop in accidents: Route 50 and Fair Ridge. The full story will be revealed in a separate post, but the basic gist is that VDOT shortened the yellow timing just before the camera was activated. After the camera had been operational for a while, VDOT increased the duration of the yellow light, back to where it should have been, from 4 seconds to 5.5 seconds. On the very next day, reports show that violations plunged 94% and did not return. Of course, that massive statistical drop was used to help make the cameras look like an amazing success. But we know the truth now. Cameras did nothing; timing did everything. There is an alternative that is more effective and that doesn’t undermine the Constitution or invade privacy. The problem is, the real safety solution doesn’t help balance the budget.

Let’s inform the city council that we know their contract with Australian Redflex Traffic Systems is illegal. The proposal includes a “cost neutrality” provision that violates the Virginia reauthorization law requiring flat-rate compensation for the private company in charge of issuing tickets. The question was just litigated at the appellate level in California.

The facts are on our side, but it will take more than facts to stop a city council intent on balancing its budget at the cost of public safety and freedom. Let’s be there January 13 to let them know we’re on to their scheme. The lie that these things are about safety has been exposed.