A few months ago I got a surprise in the mail—a lovely packet of information about an alleged traffic violation in which I had turned right on red at one of those ubiquitous signals that features an automated traffic enforcement set-up. Two sheets of photos of me making the dreaded right on red movement, links to the video footage of me doing the same, and scary legal language about bail and appearing in court, and I better hurry up and pay the—get this—astronomical fine of $371 in order to avoid all that ugliness.
So did I lie down and let the city roll over on me? Am I a well-behaved woman? Hell, no. Not in this incarnation, anyway. I did what any other cheapskate would do who feels unjustly put-upon by a totalitarian Big Brother-type system—I conducted research on the Internet. And boy, did I get an eyeful.
Plenty of other folks in my same situation, plenty of other municipalities with questionably legal automated traffic enforcement systems that, lo and behold, bring in substantial revenue for said municipalities. And worst of all, cities that are willing to create potentially dangerous driving conditions by changing—you'll never believe this, but it's sadly true—the length of yellow lights in order to catch more violators and make more revenue.
Here is some of what I found out:
Sites to help you if you do get an automated traffic enforcement ticket:
For more general information about traffic enforcement cameras, check Wikipedia.
Upon digging a little deeper, I found myself suspicious of the length of time of the yellow light at the intersection where I committed the horrendous and unforgivable traffic violation. I marched myself over there and timed the yellow light. One second. Exactly one second. That seemed awfully short to me, so I researched the legal minimum for yellow lights in the state of California, and sure enough, the least allowable by state law is three seconds. Now if you are driving toward a yellow light and getting ready to turn right, there is a HUGE difference between one second of yellow warning light and three. If you do decide to stop suddenly during the one second yellow, you risk getting rear-ended by the person behind you.
Armed with copies of the state law detailing the minimum yellow light length and my personal research about the yellow light length at my intersection, I protested. I requested a written trial ("Trial by Written Declaration"), I got it and was found guilty. Then I requested a "Trial de Novo"—a new trial, available only if you go through the written trial formality—and got it. I showed up at court armed with a smile and a bit of confidence that I was in the right (not that I knew I'd win, but that I knew I was doing the right thing to fight an injustice)—and the desire to get my $371 back (not to mention the damage to insurance rates and other repercussions if you take the points and don't go to traffic school).
The police officer who was assigned to me—because no human was present during my offending right turn on red—was cordial. He showed me the video of me making the right on red. I smiled and said I know, I have seen it—the technology is great, isn't it—making small talk, and not being defensive. I brought up the yellow light interval and told him about how short it is for that intersection. He backed up the video to the yellow light and sure enough, there it was—all one second of it. I said, "See—just one second—that's dangerously short, don't you think?" He insisted that that was his intersection and that he had timed it recently, and that it was three seconds. I disagreed in a nice way and suggested that maybe the traffic engineers had changed the yellow light interval back to the legally recommended minimum of three seconds since I had timed it last. Perhaps the city had gotten lots of complaints about this practice?
Well, the police officer immediately suggested that my case be dismissed due to the "reasonable doubt" about the length of the yellow light at my intersection. I was grateful to have won and to be able to get my money back (I am awaiting the refund check), but still curious. That day on the way home from court, I timed my yellow light, and it was still one second long. All of this made me think that the city deliberately sets the yellow light interval too short in order to trick drivers into making more traffic errors, thereby generating more tickets and more revenue for the city. The police officers have to be in on the whole scheme, because they are the ones who appear in court against you to represent the city's interests. Now, it is the police officer's job to enforce, so I have no blame for them doing their job as they are instructed to do so. The city that is making fiscal decisions that endanger the common person--that's who gets the brunt of my ire.
While I was at the court and after my case had been dismissed, I was approached by a gentleman who had lots of questions about how I was able to get my case dismissed. It just so happens that he is organizing a class action lawsuit on behalf of those who have been hoodwinked into paying those traffic fines for intersections with illegally short yellow light intervals. According to him, the yellow lights all over town are illegally short and the city has much to account for.
If this happens to you—if you are the victim of a huge fine for a traffic violation at an automated enforcement intersection, do not rest until you do due diligence and fight back. Be sure to check these articles, if nothing else, and know that you are not alone.
- The Yellow Menace: The police could make intersections safer with longer yellow lights. But the city wouldn't make any money that way