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News 5 Investigates: Shorter yellow lights found at some red light camera intersections

City's traffic engineer declines on-camera interview over yellow light timing
Red Light Camera
Posted at 4:01 PM, May 05, 2022

COLORADO SPRINGS — The City of Colorado Springs recently expanded its red light camera program, but News 5 Investigates discovered the City may not be giving drivers a fair shake before those cameras snap a picture of your license plate.

In April, News 5 Investigates first inquired about yellow light timing with the city's traffic engineer, Todd Frisbee.

City Engineer
Todd Frisbee, City of Colorado Springs

Through a spokesperson, Frisbee declined to speak with News 5. Meanwhile, another spokesperson for Mayor Suthers says he's too busy with other engagements to address our story.

Bottom line—whether you love them or hate them, the red light camera program in Colorado Springs is growing.

"A lot of municipalities do this to balance the city budget," Shelia Dunn with the National Motorists Association said. "They calculate how much money they're going to be making and it's really policing for profit. I think it's wrong."

Jeremy Loew, a Colorado Springs-based attorney agrees.

"It's just another way for the city to collect money," he said.

Jeremy Loew
Attorney Jeremy Loew

On April 5, News 5 Investigates received a tip that caught our attention. The title on the email reads, "Rigged Red Light Camera on Woodmen Rd. at Black Forest Road."

The viewer claims the yellow light at this new red light camera intersection is shorter than other intersections with similar speed limits--and this isn't the first time we've heard this concern.

While there are no state or federal laws that define an exact yellow light time based on speed limit, recommendations and guidance exist.

According to a traffic study funded by the National Motorists Association Foundation, or NMAF, these are the recommendations they've published for timing of yellow lights:

25 MPH -- 3.0 Seconds
30 MPH -- 3.5 Seconds
35 MPH -- 4.0 Seconds
40 MPH -- 4.5 Seconds
45 MPH -- 5.0 Seconds
50 MPH -- 5.5 Seconds
55 MPH -- 6.0 Seconds

New red light camera interesections:

Woodmen at Black Forest and Barnes at Tutt are the two newest locations with red light cameras.

Both have speed limits of 45 mph.

The NMAF suggests drivers have a minimum of a 5-second yellow light based on that speed limit.

The City has both yellow lights timed at 4 seconds, according to city data obtained under the Colorado Open Records Act.

You may be wondering whether a 1 second difference has any real impact? We asked the NMAF that question.

"If it's just one second more it makes a huge difference," Dunn explained. "In many communities, it's even shown that when they increase the yellow light, there doesn't need to be cameras anymore."

Shelia Dunn
Shelia Dunn

Dunn says increasing yellow light clearance times allows more people to safely get through an intersection. She also believes it may prevent accidents.

"When you have a red light camera intersection and people know about it, they get close to the yellow light and then it turns yellow and they make a dead stop," she said. "Then all of a sudden there's a wreck from behind. Of course it's not the person in front that caused the wreck that's responsible, it's the person that hit them."

Out of the 12 intersections with red light cameras we received data on, only 5 meet NMAF recommendations.

The intersection at Academy and Airport even exceeds those guidelines. This location has a speed limit of 40 mph. NMAF recommends the yellow light last at least 4.5 seconds. City records show drivers get 5 seconds to clear this intersection.

Yellow Lights
Yellow Light Timing and Speed Limits

We shared our findings with Loew. He says he's not surprised based on the traffic infrastructure he has witnessed first-hand.

"On the east coast and in a lot of major cities, traffic lights are timed and so when you get a green light, you continuously get green," he said. "Here, it seems like Colorado Springs has a willy nilly approach to all of its traffic rules and regulations and it's not surprising to me that they can't necessarily justify why they have something in place because my guess is they don't even know."

In a statement to News 5, the City says it follows the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices as a reference for traffic light timing.

Red light camera sign
Red Light Camera Sign

That guidance states that yellow lights should range between 3-6 seconds.

The National Motorists Association takes things a step further---referencing this mathematical formula to help generate a list of yellow light clearance times based on specific speed limit increases.

Yellow light timing formula
Yellow Light Timing Formula (NMAF study)

On April 22, News 5 emailed spokesperson Vanessa Zink to talk about the timing of yellow lights with traffic engineering.

Zink forwarded our request to Max D'Onofrio, another spokesperson.

"Our Traffic Engineer Todd Frisbee unfortunately doesn't have time for an interview the next few days," D'Onofrio replied on April 25.

News 5 then asked for Frisbee's earliest availability for an on-camera interview.

On April 27, the city declined that interview request.

Getting the City's side for fair and balanced coverage:

Although we weren't able to get city officials to go on-camera, we did find the City has a web page dedicated to red light cameras.

In this city video and article, you'll hear one common word justifying red light cameras---"safety."

"Traffic safety has always been one of the main concerns of this community," retired Police Chief Vince Niski said.

Mayor John Suthers was also present in the video.

"Public safety is the highest priority of government in my opinion," Suthers said.

However, attorneys like Loew question whether the red light camera program is more about safety over revenue.

"If it was really something that was such a big safety concern or safety issue, then why did the city take them out previously?"

Red Light cam intersection
Black Forest and Woodmen

You may recall, red light cameras are not new to Colorado Springs. They were taken out several years ago before returning prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"They were in, they were taken out and now the city is putting them back and adding additional ones," Loew said. "To me, it sounds like a revenue grab."

Below is a list of 12 red light camera intersections disclosed to News 5 on April 11:

  • East Platte Avenue and Chelton Road
  • Briargate Boulevard and Lexington Boulevard
  • North Academy Boulevard and North Carefree Circle
  • North Academy Boulevard and Dublin Boulevard
  • Lake Avenue and East Cheyenne Mountain
  • Airport Road and South Academy Boulevard
  • East Platte Avenue and North Union Boulevard
  • East Woodmen Road and Duryea Drive
  • Austin Bluffs and North Academy
  • Platte and North Murray
  • Woodmen and Blackforest
  • Barnes and Tutt Boulevard

The City recently updated its web site to include a 13th location at Maizeland and Academy. This location was also not included in a recent press release from April 11, 2022. A spokesperson for CSPD says the location at Maizeland and Academy goes "live" on Thursday, May 5.

News 5 also requested yellow light timing data for all intersections in Colorado Springs. The City did not have the data "readily available" and estimated it would cost us $1,500 for the records. News 5 declined to pay that fee for public data.

Are red light cameras reducing accidents?

While we were able to get specific, detailed accident data at red light camera intersections up until 2020, CSPD says there's a problem with easily compiling the same data in the years following the red light camera installation. The department was able to provide us with basic statistics. All records released by CSPD can be found here.

We also asked the City of Colorado Springs for any records it has on traffic fatalities and accidents solely related to red light camera programs as well as records showing where the revenue from red light cameras is earmarked.

The City says it doesn't have any records and told us to contact police.

"The city has confirmed with Traffic Engineering, Finance, the Mayor's Office and City Council that there are no responsive records," the City responded.

According to the city's web site, revenue from red light cameras goes into the city's general fund, not to the police department.

As for the National Motorists Association Foundation, they say the City's unwillingness to answer questions about yellow light timing and red light camera data raises concerns.

"Anytime you can't access data from a public figure, I think that's a red flag," Dunn said. "They're saying we need it (cameras) to improve safety but is that really the case? You don't know. That needs to be looked into."

According to city data from Municipal Court, Colorado Springs has collected roughly $2 million from red light camera violations between 2020-2021. That number does not include revenue waiting to be collected from unpaid tickets.

Here is the official statement we received from the City's Traffic Engineer via a spokesperson:

Yellow clearance intervals managed by the City of Colorado Springs can range from 3 to 6 seconds. The City uses formulas and the guidance of the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) to determine the length of yellow lights at intersections. The MUTCD formulas and guidance are generally based on the speed limit and the size of the intersection. The City has used this approach for decades and will update the yellow clearance intervals as needed if the speed limit is changed or the intersection is rebuilt. So, signal timing and yellow clearance intervals are set independent of whether the City is considering the installation of red light cameras. For safety, the City may extend the timing of red lights, to give more time for vehicles to clear the intersection. While traffic is supposed to come to a stop when they see a yellow light, if they can do so safely, the reality is that some drivers will accelerate in an attempt to make it through the intersection. Since yellow clearance intervals are based on the speed limit, if individuals exceed the speed limit it may appear that the yellow clearance interval is shorter than anticipated.

Additional data:

Total tickets issued in 2020: 14,885
Total tickets unpaid in 2020: 4,696

Total tickets issued in 2021: 24,659
Total tickets unpaid in 2021: 7,690

Source: Clerk of Court

According to city records, a red light camera violation is a non-moving infraction that will result in a $75 fine, but does not result in the assessment of points on a license.

Have a story idea you'd like our investigative team to look into? Call our tip line: 719-577-4650.