Roughly 20 percent of motorists caught by red-light cameras are ticketed because they missed the yellow light by just fractions of a second.
So a May 31 memo from the state Department of Transportation instructing communities with cameras to lengthen yellow-light times on state roads by as much as four-tenths of a second should have been good news for drivers.
But many Florida cities and counties, including those in the Tampa Bay area, have yet to reprogram stoplights because local government officials have been waiting for more detailed guidelines from the DOT.
That likely resulted in hundreds of drivers receiving $158 fines who would not have been ticketed had cities acted sooner.
FDOT officials said cities were free to make the changes immediately; but city officials waited for the state to issue a new traffic manual.
Republican state Sen. Jeff Brandes, who has filed a bill to ban red-light cameras, said he suspects that cities were reluctant to lengthen yellow-light intervals because they did not want to lose revenue.
“Cities knew the reaction time was going up and they should have been proactive and extended the yellow light times,” Brandes said. “People should reach out to local elected officials and complain about how they are running these camera programs. For some municipalities, it's a cash cow.”
The DOT's May memo gave cities with camera programs until the end of the year to extend yellow light times on state roads at intersections with cameras. The change was made after studies suggested that the one-second reaction time built into the timing was too short for many drivers.
State officials said the memo was intended to give cities as much notice as possible to begin making changes to their stoplights.
“They could have gone ahead and done it, or they could have waited,” said Mark Wilson, FDOT state traffic operations engineer.
The new manual was finally sent to city traffic departments this week, more than 110 days later.
“The DOT had not, until this morning, given us authorization to make the changes to the traffic timing,” said Joe Kubicki, St. Petersburg director of transportation.
“They said it had to go through a review process. We have been pressing them on a weekly basis to get through that review process.”
Wilson said he had talked with at least one city official who thought he had to wait for the updated traffic manual.
FDOT spokeswoman Kris Carson said cities were not given conflicting information.
“I think our office and the state office told the local cities you can go ahead and change them, but once the decision is made for a new manual, you might have to change them again,” she said.
The duration of the yellow-light is calculated using a complex formula that includes approach speed and the gradient of the road. Under the new standards, stoplights will remain on yellow for 4.8 seconds on roads with an approach speed of 45 mph.
Officials in St. Petersburg, Clearwater and Hillsborough County say they now plan to lengthen the yellow-light times at intersections monitored by red-light cameras over the next few weeks.
In Hillsborough County, that includes the intersection at Fletcher Avenue and Bruce B. Downs Boulevard and Waters Avenue and Dale Mabry Highway. In Clearwater, stoplights at Chestnut Street and South Fort Harrison Avenue and Gulf to Bay Boulevard and Belcher Road will be reprogrammed.
The new yellow-light times will apply to every intersection where St. Petersburg officials have installed cameras.
Red-light cameras are big business in Florida. Statewide, fines from cameras total roughly $110 million per year. About $60 million of that goes to the state with cities and red-light camera companies sharing the rest. American Traffic Solutions, which runs the majority of camera programs in Florida, has spent $1.5 million on lobbying efforts and political donations in Florida, according to state records.
Advocates say they change driver behavior and reduce accidents. Critics warn that they may cause more rear-end accidents when drivers stop sharply.
St. Petersburg, which has 22 cameras monitoring 10 intersections, issued more than 36,000 citations in a 12-month period, collecting $3.5 million in fines of which the city and ATS shared $1.7 million. Clearwater, which has cameras at three intersections, issued almost 6,000 tickets in a six-month trial period, collecting $570,000 in fines. The city's share was about $200,000.
Longer yellow lights will almost certainly mean less money for cities with cameras. Of the 36,000 citations issued in St. Petersburg in a 12-month period ending in October 2012, 31 percent were for drivers who misjudged the yellow light by less than three-tenths of a second.
The downside for drivers will be more time idling at stoplights, said Wilson, the FDOT traffic engineer.
“Every time the cycle changes you will add half a second,” he said.