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Friday, March 27, 2009

SF's Red Light Cameras - They should install countdown clocks

San Francisco's red light cameras are infamous for catching drivers driving through a red light, and are installed at some of the most notorious and riskiest intersections in the entire city.

But have you ever thought, maybe the city is getting too dependent on this as a cash cow, when the primary purpose is to educate people to not drive against the red. Other than the insane $400+ minimum fine established, the fear of driving through an intersection with one of those cameras is more a local government fear tactic to rattle your nerves, even if you drove through a green light.

If safety is supposed to be the number one priority by preventing t-bone accidents and other red light running incidents, and making money on violators should be a lower priority. I think the city can do more to stop red light runners while retaining the red light cameras to catch the scofflaws.

The problem that is being noted down in many news reports is the red light cameras have increased the number of rear-end crashes (article 1 and article 2) because people are slamming their brakes when they are close to an intersection and the yellow light has just activated, fearing the camera will go off even if they go through the yellow.

To clarify the law in California, driving through a yellow light is legal. A yellow light is to warn motorists that the light will change to red shortly. But those red light cameras scare the crap out of people, so slamming their brakes on an approaching yellow is OK for them, but bad news for their rear bumper.

What does a crosswalk signal do to help drivers?
In San Francisco, we were one of the first to introduce the countdown crosswalk signal. This countdown timer replaced the simple flashing red hand and white color pedestrian figure with a more complex system that will countdown during the flashing red hand of when the signal will turn into a solid red hand. This program itself is a success story for San Francisco's pedestrians, but also has been used as an improvised traffic signal warning system for drivers.

On the simple intersections with nothing complex (i.e. protected turn signals), the countdown clock tells drivers that in XX amount of seconds, the signal will change to yellow and red. Drivers, including myself, use this to make a quick guess if I am able to go through the intersection or should hit my brake early to slow down so I don't run the red light. So actually, this de facto countdown clock prevents red light running. Even Muni operators do this too.

For the red light camera intersections with countdown clock pedestrian signals, this is also a great benefit. It works well in intersections with cameras, such as the westbound direction of Geary at Park Presidio Blvd. where the countdown clock is right on the money with the signals. Many drivers obey the countdown timer, and when it gets close, they hit their brakes early like everyone else.

Unfortunately there are red light camera intersections in the city where there is NO pedestrian signal, or the countdown timer is not synced with the intersection's road signal. One very bad intersection is at 19th Avenue and Sloat Blvd. where the crosswalk timers are not synced to the road signals. If you were going southbound on 19th avenue and obeyed the crosswalk timer and hit your brakes, the drivers behind you would be honking their horns at you because even if the timer says "zero" the road signal is still GREEN.

Even I screwed up once on southbound 19th Avenue at Sloat when I obeyed the crosswalk timer, slowed down, realized it was still green and it shortly turned yellow, and hit my brakes hard, causing my tires to screech and smoke. The smell of burning rubber is terrible!

The need for countdown clocks at red light cameras
So going back to the idea of priority one to prevent accidents (instead of being a cash cow), I feel the city should invest in real countdown clocks at red light camera intersections. Here's my reasons:
  • Experienced drivers have a natural sense based on their speed and timing if they can cross an intersection legally and safely.
  • Since current red light cameras scare the crap out of people and they slam their brakes at the first sign of a yellow light, a countdown clock will tell drivers that if they are approaching an intersection and if there's not a lot of time left, they should start slowing down and prepare to stop. It's basically a way to calm people down and give them confidence.
  • People can't always 100% rely on the pedestrian countdown signals.
  • By reducing the number of tickets issued, our courts can reduce the extreme workloads and long waits to see a judge. One Bay Area city is so bad that they have huge lines for people who can only do walk-ins, and why???? Red light cameras.
If the city invests in this, they will prevent accidents, injuries, and deaths due to red light running and people slamming their brakes to prevent red light running.

If the city decides that money is more important than a dead body at the coroner's office because someone slammed their brakes too hard and the car behind them wrecks their vehicle and kills the driver (forgot to buckle-up?), the city government should get surgery to remove their black (greedy) money fueled hearts and put in a compassionate one.

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