Police write red-light tickets at intersection with short yellow light

Posted at 9:49 PM, Jun 24, 2016
and last updated 2016-06-25 11:52:54-04

If it seems like the yellow lights at some traffic signals are shorter, it may not be your imagination.

Kelly Heckel contacted TODAY’S TMJ4 News with concerns over a short yellow light at the intersection of Highway 20 and Highway 31 (Green Bay Road) in Mount Pleasant she believes is a ticket revenue booster for the town.

“There isn’t enough time to get through the intersection,” Heckel said. “As I proceeded through the yellow light, it apparently turned red and I was pulled over by an officer."

Heckel was written a ticket and says on the day she received the citation, at least 3 other officers were focused on pulling over drivers at that intersection.

Armed with a stopwatch on my phone, I time the intersection of Highway 20 and Highway 31 five times from every angle and found the yellow light lasted on average, 3.4 seconds.

The National Motorists Association Foundation and the National Cooperative Highway Research Program recommends a yellow light through a 35 mph posted speed limit should last a minimum of 4 seconds.

“At 35 mph, you cannot get through that light in enough time before it turns red,” Heckel said. “There’s absolutely no way.”

Barnet Fagel is a forensic video expert with the National Motorists Association Foundation, also known as the NMAF.

“The only practical reason for shortening a yellow light is to rob people of money,” he said.

Fagel examined the lights at the intersection of Highway 20 and Highway 31 (Green Bay Road). His analysis found the yellow lights were only 3.536 seconds long.

"The intersection just a half a block down, the yellow light from what I can see is a full second longer for the same traffic flow, same intersection, same speed limit,” he said. “That shouldn't be."

We had Fagel test out another intersection at Newman Road and Spring Street where the speed limit in all directions is also 35 mph.

Fagel’s analysis timed these yellow lights at 4.27 seconds.

Fagel asked us, “What’s half a second (time difference)?”

“A half a second is approximately 22 to 24 feet or more depending upon the speed of a vehicle,” he said.

Heckel believes Mount Pleasant police are focusing their patrol efforts at the intersection with the shorter yellow light.

“They (police) see it as a quick way to make money for their department and village and they probably will make a lot of money on this,” she said.

We requested an on-camera interview from the Mount Pleasant Police Department.

“I cannot promise you an interview at this time,” Captain Thomas Peterson wrote in an email.

Over the phone, Captain Peterson explained the town received a “red light running grant” to focus on enforcement at certain areas.

Peterson also explained that officers did what some refer to as “saturated enforcement” at the intersection of Highway 20 and Highway 31 in April.

On the two days (April 19 and 20) we know police were sitting at this intersection, 56 red light tickets were issued, although it’s unclear if all 56 tickets were written at that particular location.

However, we discovered nearly 85-percent of all red light tickets written for the entire month of April were written on April 19 and 20.

“Highway robbery is what it is,” Fagel said.

According to police, the grant is meant to curb bad driving habits, but drivers like Heckel disagree.

“It was for revenue,” Heckel said.

Heckel has pleaded not guilty and has a trial set in July.

In addition to testing the lights at Highway 20/Highway 31 and Spring Street/Newman Road, we also tested the lights at Spring St. and N. Emmertsen Rd.

The intersection at that light is also 35 mph and timed the yellow lights to be on average, just over 4 seconds.

What to do when a light turns yellow:

According to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, when you see a yellow light, you should stop before entering the intersection unless you’re so close to it that a stop may not be made safely.

“A yellow light does not mean it’s time to speed up and race through the intersection,” WisDOT said in a statement.

Who maintains the traffic signals and calibrates yellow light times? 

The intersection of 20 and 31 in Mount Pleasant is a state highway. The Wisconsin Department of transportation says they maintain that particular signal. However, other signals in a city or county that are not on
state highways are maintained by the local traffic engineering department.

The legality of short yellow lights:

Federal regulations only require yellow lights to be at least three seconds long. As the law is written now, it’s up to the traffic engineering department or Department of Transportation to determine a specific yellow light time length.

WisDOT tells TODAY’S TMJ4 that construction work at Highway 20 and Highway 31 is about to begin and at that point in time, engineers will re-evaluate whether any changes to that light need to be made.

Yellow light timing recommendations:
The National Motorists Association Foundation recommends the following time duration for yellow lights based on the below speed limits:
25 mph- 3.0 seconds
30 mph- 3.5 seconds
35 mph- 4.0 seconds
40 mph- 4.5 seconds
45 mph- 5.0 seconds
50 mph- 5.5 seconds
55 mph- 6.0 seconds