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Would extending the yellow light at traffic signals curb red-light running?

Posted at 5:46 AM, Jun 24, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-24 08:55:19-04

PHOENIX — It was just weeks ago that a Phoenix officer was simply at the wrong place at the wrong time. Officer Ginarro New was killed when his patrol car was slammed into by a red-light runner near Cave Creek Road and Greenway Parkway, according to officials with the Phoenix Police Department.

His death has sparked new conversations among the community about what can be done on the roads to make them safer since this could have happened to any driver.

On the ABC15 Instagram account, we've posted some data from AAA Arizona that ranked the state in the top spot in the nation for red-light running fatalities.

Many viewers commented on the post about the length of the yellow light and thought it could be too short, which may cause more people to run more red lights.

Operation Safe Roads decided to see if traffic signal timing could actually save lives.

The constant cycle of colors at the more than 1,000 signalized intersections in Phoenix is designed to move through green, yellow, and red in two minutes.

"That accounts for the green movements for each direction," explained Matthew Wilson. "The left-turn phases that might happen, as well as those yellow and red times are all going to happen within that 120 seconds."

Wilson is the Deputy Street Transportation Director for the city's Traffic Services Division.

He said the timing of the yellow light at an intersection is determined by a mathematical equation.

"National standards incorporate a formula that depends on that vehicle speed, driver reaction time, the ability for drivers to decelerate before getting into the intersection, so that's the same at every one of our intersections," Wilson said.

"We use the same formula, and it just varies by that posted speed limit."

For example, if the posted speed limit is 45 miles per hour, expect the yellow light to last just under five seconds.

Councilman Sal DiCiccio represents District 6 in Phoenix. He brought up yellow light timing at a December 2019 city council meeting.

"We should have everything on the table, and you should be testing these things out in these intersections and seeing if that works and slows it down," Councilman Diciccio said to transportation and police staff.

At the time, the city was discussing the red-light camera program that no longer exists. A majority of the council was against renewing a contract with Redflex, with some believing it was a money-grab and targeted low-income areas.

ABC15 has requested to speak with Councilman DiCiccio on numerous occasions over the last few weeks on how he believes the yellow light timing extension would save lives, but he has not responded.

"Obviously, if we lengthen the time for a while, people may not understand what's going on," said Councilwoman Debra Stark. "But eventually, drivers pick up on that and they continue their bad behavior of running red lights."

Stark, who represents District 3, thinks drivers would just adapt. She is in support of red-light cameras and said Mayor Kate Gallego would be re-introducing the topic in the fall of this year.

"We need some help because we're short-staffed at the police...And so, cameras are a great tool," Councilwoman Stark said. "It really helps with enforcement."

As for the city traffic engineers, they are not looking into extending the yellow light because they believe it's safer to stick to the national safety standards. However, they said they are continuing to listen to traffic experts across the country about what can be done.

"For us to be thinking about what the change would be, we'd want to see an increase in safety one way or another and one small change doesn't necessarily result in safety," Wilson said. "We follow a national practice. We're engaged in a discussion in the professional community on what the best and safest approach is and small changes, small... trying new things can really lead to unintended consequences."

Wilson tells ABC15 that the Phoenix City Council did direct the transportation department to create a comprehensive traffic safety plan back in March.

It is unclear when they will finish up, but they will be looking into a variety of ways they may be able to make changes that they believe will maintain safety.

Have a road issue or question for Operation Safe Roads? Call 833-AZ-ROADS or email roads@abc15.com.