Virginia Beach cheating drivers with improperly timed red lights

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From Watchdog.org

VIRGINIA BEACH — Hours after Watchdog.org reported that Virginia Beach was running illegally short yellow lights to trap red-light runners, the city reset its signals to conform to state law.

The change came in the wake of Watchdog questioning the Virginia Department of Transportation about the legality of the city’s photo-enforcement program.

State law requires that intersections with ticket-issuing cameras have yellow-light intervals that comply with the methodology recommended by the Institute of Traffic Engineers.

“The cameras were operating illegally from 2009 until last week,” Joe Bahen, director of the Virginia chapter of the National Motorists Association, said Thursday.

Brian Walters, coordinator of Virginia Beach’s “PhotoSafe” program, said the city’s signal timing “has been in compliance with the VDOT guidelines since the beginning of our photo enforcement program.”

When VDOT amended its guidelines — extending the duration of yellow light intervals at camera-monitored intersections — the city followed suit. VDOT announced the change Jan. 7, days after Watchdog began investigating the issue.

Virginia Beach reset its yellow lights Jan. 10.

“Virginia standards are important to our driving public,” Walters said. “Drivers should be able to have expectations or similar experiences of standardized yellow timing, regardless of where they are driving in our state.”

But, he added, “It should be noted that it will take the state and localities at least a year, and likely much longer, to bring all traffic signals into compliance.”

Bahen called that “a load of crap.”

He said Virginia Beach could have spared itself — and motorists — a lot of trouble if it had simply followed accepted traffic engineering formulas on its 90 photo-enforced traffic lanes.

“State law is silent on yellows unless cameras are installed. Then the yellow must comply with the ITE recommended methodology,” Bahen said.

Virginia Beach issued some 16,500 traffic citations to red-light runners and left-turn violators at its camera-monitored intersections in 2011, the latest year for which figures were available.

“Had the city’s yellow intervals been in compliance, approximately 8,000 citations would not have been issued,” Bahen, a public engineer, told Watchdog.

One of those “offenders” was Vanessa Dallas, a real-estate agent and lifelong Virginia Beach resident who was photo-ticketed at Great Neck Road and Virginia Beach Boulevard.

According to Bahen’s examination of traffic camera footage, Dallas’ Mercedes would have entered the intersection “with 0.89 seconds to spare had the signal been timed in accordance with state law.”

Dallas said she would be asking the city to refund her $50 fine. Walters said the city would not comply with such requests.

NMA President Gary Biller said he expected as much.

“They won’t issue refunds for prior citations out of the goodness of their own hearts, but we can check around with a few law firms to see if they’d be interested in a class-action suit on behalf of those earlier ‘offenders,’” Biller said.

VDOT did not respond to Watchdog’s requests for comment. Virginia State Police declined to discuss the situation.

But Bahen praised the reporting by Watchdog, the journalistic arm of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, as crucial to bringing change.

“The NMA has been asking the city of Virginia Beach to bring its yellow intervals at camera-enforced intersections into compliance with state law since March 18, 2009. We were completely ignored until recently.

“The NMA Virginia chapter wishes to acknowledge the Franklin Center’s contribution and thank them for their interest in highway traffic safety,” Bahen said in a statement issued Thursday.

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