Have you had a traffic ticket lately? You may have been a victim of public manipulation, dear reader. And it may be very hard to figure out if you were just unlucky (or foolish) or actually manipulated….

We’ve talked briefly about speed limits before, but I don’t think we’ve mentioned traffic lights and other traffic signs. So let’s take a look at the basic traffic light:

Red Light Manipulation

They’re generally a good idea. In fact, people thought they were such good things that in the mid 1980s, they supplemented the humble traffic light with a camera to catch folks who ran the light.

Traffic cameras were a simple concept – municipalities installed them because they believed that they could reduce accidents. There was also a cost-saving rationale: a camera costs less than a police patrol, theoretically freeing up the police to use their time more intelligently elsewhere.

There were worthy aims, but they quickly got corrupted by a number of other dynamics. For one thing, municipalities quickly realized that while a police car could occasionally catch a light runner, cameras caught them all, and that meant a lot of money came in through fines. One traffic camera, one single camera, for example, was found to bring in more than $2M a year – 3,000 tickets a month.  Worse still, municipalities quickly found that buying these cameras, putting them up, maintaining them, etc… was a huge pain, and that some helpful corporations would be happy to put them up and keep them up – well, for a fee, which was usually a set percentage of the total tickets issued by the camera. What could possibly go wrong?

Traffic Camera ManipulationBy the middle of the 1990s, many municipalities and companies had become quite reliant on the fees generated by traffic cameras, but there was a looming issue. Over time, many cameras generate less and less fees, as more and more motorists get used to them and stop getting caught. So what to do?

Some cities got a brilliant idea, and a very manipulative one: people may have gotten used to the location of the light, yes, but what about if you changed the duration of the light? Specifically, the yellow light?

It turns out that motorists basically have a good feel for how long a yellow light lasts. They go through the traffic stop when they estimate that they can cross on a yellow. But if you tweak the light to make it last less than people expect, you can catch a lot of motorists who thought that they were in the clear.

Yellow light duration is set, believe it or not, by state law. It is usually around 4 seconds. It turns out, if you shorten it by even a second, you throw off enough motorists to make the camera very profitable. That’s what the towns of Chattanooga (where the private contractor, Lasercraft, who installed the cameras reduced the yellow light duration from 3.8 seconds to 3 seconds), and Nashville (where the police issued tickets along a stretch of road where the yellow lights were also reduced to 3 seconds) figured out fairly quickly.

They were not alone. In city after city, yellow lights were tweaked by just one second, just before red light cameras were installed. That one second made a huge difference, though – a back of the envelope calculation showed that a 3 second yellow light catches more than 200% more than a standard yellow light. At roughly $100 a pop, that’s a fair return on a tiny investment…

But of course, some motorists decided to fight the tickets. After all, this is the US, right? We’re allowed to confront our accusers in court, and that’s what a number of motorists did, once they figured out that many cameras could be badly calibrated. This became a pain for the contractors and municipalities – it’s hard to make money if you have to prove each infraction. So cities began to change the nature of the infraction: Albuquerque, for example, reclassified traffic infractions from criminal offenses to public nuisances – a minor change, but one that effectively means that infractions can no longer be challenged in court. Other cities passed similar ordinances that made it effectively impossible to challenge a red-light camera-issued ticket.

Even with that effort, however, it turns out that motorists eventually adapt to the cameras and revenues plummet. So a couple of companies had a good idea: with a slight tweak, the cameras could be calibrated to snap pictures of cars that did a ‘rolling right’, i.e. did not come to a full stop before turning right on red. In most municipalities, you are supposed to come to a complete stop before turning red. Most police rarely enforce that rule, however, but it turned out to be relatively simple to make sure that cameras could ticket ‘rollers’.

But companies like RedFlex had one more problem: catching a ‘roller’ was fairly useless, because the cities couldn’t be bothered, in most cases, to ticket them. So the cameras would catch perpetrators, but the city wouldn’t fine them, and the companies couldn’t collect the additional revenue. The solution? The new contracts that companies proposed to municipalities started to include a clause which forced the city to fine ‘rollers’. Under those new contracts, cities would agree to fine rollers, which provided a new revenue source for themselves and for the companies that they outsourced the service to.
How much of all this is manipulation? Some folks argue that the fundamental premise of red light cameras is flawed – it is a revenue generator masquerading as a WATOC. There are several studies that show that red light cameras actually increase accidents, for example, so the idea that municipalities deploy them for safety is inherently manipulative (and naming the law after someone who was killed by someone running a red light, as Florida did, is sheer icing on the cake). Playing with yellow light duration is a great manipulation – it’s impactful, very hard to spot, and even when discovered can easily be explained via ‘technical errors’.

Over time, I would expect to see continued innovation and manipulation on this front. Many municipalities have outlawed red light cameras because the public hates them and they are manipulative, but they are very effective revenue generators for states and municipalities – even small states can raise $40M+ a year via red light cameras, and that money is hard to turn down in a recession. So expect some interesting twists here going forward, as players find increasingly creative ways to catch folks who run red lights…