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News 5 Investigates: Did the City of Pueblo shorten lights at red light camera intersections to generate revenue?

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New questions are being raised over whether red light cameras in Pueblo are more about revenue and less about safety. 

News 5 Investigates has discovered the city is giving drivers less time to get through those intersections which potentially increases your chance of getting a ticket. 

The National Motorists Association Foundation which independently studies photo radar and camera enforcement systems calls our findings "concerning". 

Almost from the start, installing red light cameras has been a controversial topic, and now the focus has shifted to how they are timed. 

From a traffic engineering perspective, we are having such a hard time getting people to slow down, stop at stop signs and turn into their correct lane," City of Pueblo Traffic Engineer Pepper Whittlef said. "I mean the rules of the road just don't exist anymore." 

Whittlef says red light cameras were installed at the following intersections following several serious car accidents: 

-Thatcher and Prairie

-Northern and Prairie

-HWY 50 and Norwood

"You're always going to get people that don't support a project especially if they are the ones who get a ticket, but we've had a lot of success with changing driver behavior," she said. 

Whittlef provided News 5 with statistics indicating less than 6-percent of drivers who receive a red light camera ticket will get another one. 

However, this could just mean drivers are simply not running lights at the three intersections monitored with cameras. 

Multiple viewers tipped us off that the red light camera intersection at Highway 50 and Norwood seemed to have an unusually short yellow light. 

According to the National Motorists Association Foundation, the yellow light at that intersection should last a minimum of 5.5 seconds. 

News 5 Investigates discovered the yellow light is set to last a second shorter, at 4.5 seconds. 

We asked Whittlef why the city wasn't following the minimum recommended yellow light clearance times calculated by the National Motorists Association Foundation. 

"These times (from the National Motorists Association Foundation) are obviously rounded to the nearest half second and you can certainly do that," she said. 

In Colorado, there is no legislation distinguishing how long lights must stay yellow. Only "recommendations" exist. 

Whittlef says she follows recommendations from the Institute of Transportation Engineers, or ITE. 

ITE recommends the yellow light at 50 and Norwood be set at 4.7 seconds, which is still longer than how the light is currently timed. 

We asked Paul Houston, a member with the National Motorists Association whether adding an extra second would make a difference at an intersection with a speed limit of 50 mph. 

"At 50 mph, an average vehicle will travel 73 feet in that one second," Houston said. 

Houston also opposes red light camera systems. 

"I think they only work for one thing and that is raising revenue for the city and sucking money out of citizens wallets," he said. "I do not believe they work." 

Since January 1, 2015, the three red light camera intersections in Pueblo generated $765,688 in revenue. The City of Pueblo gets to keep $160,094. The rest of the funds go toward maintenance and the camera company operator. 

"There's a suspicion that municipalities alter the yellow light time down in order to generate more ticket revenue," Houston said. 

His suspicions have been proven true several times. 

The following cities were caught issuing tickets at intersections with short yellow lights: 

1. Chicago

2. Chattanooga, TN 

3. Dallas, TX

4. Springfield, MO

5. Lubbock, TX

6. Nashville, TN

7. Union City, CA

In Union City, officials issued more than $1 million in refunds after issuing tickets at an intersection with a yellow light time 1.3 seconds below the minimum California state law standards. 

"If a municipality is really interested in safety and not just getting more revenue in from the photo radar program, then they would try things like increasing the yellow light time even more than what the National Motorists Association Foundation suggests." 

While the timing of the red light camera intersection at Highway 50 and Norwood is being called into question, what about the other two intersections? 

At Thatcher and Prairie where the speed limit is 35 mph, the National Motorists Association Foundation recommends the yellow light clearance time be set at 4 seconds. The yellow light clearance time according to City of Pueblo records is 3.9 seconds. 

At Northern and Prairie where the speed limit is also 35 mph, the National Motorists Association Foundation also recommends the yellow light clearance time be set at 4 seconds. The actual clearance time according to city records is 3.5 seconds. ?However, at the next intersection over where the speed limit remains the same, the yellow light is set at 4 seconds---but guess what? There's no camera at that intersection. 

News 5 Lead Investigative Reporter Eric Ross asked Whittlef about allegations the city is purposely shortening yellow lights at red light camera intersections to generate revenue. 

She denied those allegations. 

"That's false," she said. "Completely false." 

However, News 5 Investigates discovered an interesting trend---the red light camera intersection that was timed only 1/10 second off from the National Motorists Association standards only generated 2,590 tickets between January 1, 2015 and April 2017. 

The other two red light camera intersections which were timed more than a half second shorter than recommended standards set by the National Motorists Association generated 11,349 citations. 

"I don't care if they think the yellow light time is too fast or too slow," Councilman Bob Schilling said. "That doesn't make a difference to me." 

At first, Schilling was not concerned about the timing of yellow lights, but changed his tone after we went over the data with him. 

"Somebody needs to adjust the schedule," he said. "That's a maintenance problem." 

For now, the City of Pueblo is standing by its timing of red light camera intersections and believes the program is working. 

"We're looking to reduce broad side and left turn type accidents and we do see a reduction in those happening," Whittlef said. 

This is true! T-bone accidents are down. 

However, rear end accidents in some cases are up. 

At Thatcher and Prairie, there were only only 3 rear end collisions two years prior to the red light cameras going up. Two years after, there were six rear end collisions. 

"You do see an increase in rear end accidents," Whittlef said. "However, that is true at any traffic signal when it's installed. Once you put a signal in, your expectation of rear end accidents go up."

Houston argues there's no harm or consequences in giving people additional time to get through intersections and believes traffic collisions and tickets would decline.  

"If Pueblo were to increase that yellow light time by 1 second, I would be willing to bet several paychecks that they would see a drastic reduction in violations at that intersection," he said. 

Colorado Springs ended its red light camera program back in 2011. 

The City of Littleton ended its program two years ago. 

Whittlef said the overwhelming majority of people in Pueblo support these cameras and asked for them, so they simply delivered on their promise to put them in. 

You can read more about recommended yellow light timing standards from the National Motorists Association Foundation here

Studies "mixed" on effectiveness of red light cameras: 

Whittlef provided News 5 with studies done by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety showing cities that turned off red light safety cameras saw a 30-percent increase in fatal crashes.

However, a study done by the Chicago Tribune in 2014 found red light cameras there offered few safety benefits. 

Fighting red light camera tickets: 

If you get a red light camera ticket, you have a right to appeal the citation just like a regular traffic ticket issued by an officer. Once you receive a ticket in the mail, you can contact the court clerk to schedule an appearance. 

A closer look at the numbers by intersection: 

(1) Highway 50 and Norwood (red light camera intersection): 50 mph zone 

National Motorists Association Foundation Minimum Yellow Light Recommended Time: 5.5 seconds

Institute of Transportation Engineers Minimum Timing Recommendation: 4.7 seconds

Actual Timing: 4.5 seconds

*As a reference, we timed the intersection of Highway 50 and Bonforte heading Westbound where the speed limit drops to 45 mph. This intersection does NOT have a red light camera. Despite having a lower speed limit, drivers were still allowed 4.5 seconds to travel through the intersection. Whittlef said "grade" or "incline" plays a role in determining how long they schedule timing of yellow lights. 

(2) Thatcher and Prairie (red light camera intersection): 35 mph zone

National Motorists Association Foundation Minimum Yellow Light Recommended Time: 4.0 seconds

Institute of Transportation Engineers Minimum Timing Recommendation: 3.4 seconds

Actual Timing: 3.9 seconds

(3) Northern and Prairie (red light camera intersection): 35 mph zone

National Motorists Association Foundation Minimum Yellow Light Recommended Time: 4.0 seconds

Institute of Transportation Engineers Minimum Timing Recommendation: 3.4 seconds

Actual Timing: 3.5 seconds

*As a reference, we timed the next intersection over at Cambridge and Northern head east bound (which has no red light camera). The speed limit is also 35 mph. 

National Motorists Association Foundation Minimum Yellow Light Recommended Time: 4.0 seconds

Institute of Transportation Engineers Minimum Timing Recommendation: 3.4 seconds

Actual Timing:  4.0 seconds *Meets NMAF standards. 

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