When a city goes broke, the people in charge might get a little desperate to keep the money flowing. That’s certainly the case in Chicago, which began issuing tickets to motorists who drove through yellow lights programmed to turn red a fraction of a second sooner than the city’s legal minimum of three seconds.
A fraction of a second shortening doesn’t seem like much, but the numbers add up — the city made an extra $8 million from approximately 77,000 extra tickets.
The tickets, charging $100 each, were issued after the violations were captured via red light cameras, an already-controversial tactic for policing the streets. Their opponents contend that the cameras don’t actually make the streets safer, but instead only victimize drivers for the sake of raising city funds. Shortening yellow traffic light times only adds to the increased revenue.
Chicago isn’t the first city to employ this tactic to help city coffers without consequence. The Florida Department of Transportation secretly shortened theirs back in 2011, likely adding millions of dollars more to the state’s annual revenue.
If you’re hoping these greedy cities and states will get their comeuppance, don’t held your breath. Time reports that there is no federal rule dictating the duration of a yellow light, though the US Department of Transporation recommends three to six seconds. The minimum of three is generally considered the nationwide standard.
A spokesperson for the National Motorists Association, John Bowman, tole Time that he’s heard hundreds of cases wherein citizens believe they were ticketed by red light cameras when the yellow light was too short, hinting that this problem might not be unique to Chicago and Florida.
“I don’t think you’re ever going to get a public official on the record saying, ‘We shortened them to make more money,'” Bowman said. “But I think that clearly goes on.”
Despite the criticism and the alleged abuse of red light cameras, the traffic light fixtures now operate on a revenue-sharing model, which means they make money for both private manufacturers and cities that use them. Thus, the problem isn’t likely to go away soon.