Beaverton red-light camera timing doesn't match city claim

Beaverton red-light camera timing doesn't match city claim

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by Chris Willis, KGW Unit 8 Investigative reporter

kgw.com

Posted on September 10, 2013 at 5:57 AM

Updated Tuesday, Sep 10 at 10:50 AM

BEAVERTON, Ore. -- A yellow light at a red-light camera intersection in Beaverton changes faster than what the city claims on its website, according to an investigation by KGW.

Drivers have to make a split-second decision on a yellow light, and at Lombard and Allen, it's costing drivers who are ticketed by the city's camera. Several contacted KGW to complain that the yellow changed to red too quickly.

Driver Frank Galati said it happened to him.

“I think it stinks, I think they've got this set up to try and trap people, I really do,” he said.

Galati has been hit twice by the red-light cameras and it’s cost him more than $400. “It was just turned yellow as I got in the middle and then it turned red real quick, just that quick, and then the lights went on, the camera went on,” he recalled.

Galati was not alone. In the past seven months, 630 people have been caught by the red-light camera at Lombard and Allen. The average ticket costs $260. That’s more than $163,000 in total tickets, due to that intersection alone.

Pleading a case in court and traffic school are options to get tickets waived, so an exact dollar amount of revenue generated is tough to gauge.

What’s not tough to gauge, according to a local engineer, is the timing of the yellow light. “This yellow light is real short, its 4-percent off,” said Mats Jarlstrom, an engineer with expertise in calibration and electronics.

When Jarlstrom’s wife got a ticket at Lombard and Allen, he used digital cameras, frame-by-frame, to test if the timing of the yellow lights were calibrated the way the City of Beaverton had claimed they were. “I measured about 3.35 seconds, which is about 4-percent shorter,” he said.

The City of Beaverton’s website claims the yellow lights are set to 3.5 seconds. And while Jarlstrom’s claim of 4 percent short doesn’t seem like much, if your wristwatch was 4 percent off, it would lose 57 minutes every 24 hours, he explained.

“I don’t mind a red light camera system, I just want it to be right," he said. "If they say 3.5 seconds, it should be programmed to 3.5 and it should actually be measuring 3.5, but it’s not.”

Unit 8 took KGW cameras to the intersection. We found the timing of the yellow light rarely reaches the city’s claim of 3.5 seconds. In fact, when we used our frame-by-frame analysis, there were times when the signal had no lights on at all. It was black.

“It’s the difference between what a camera captures and what we perceive with our eye,” said Holly Thompson, the Program Director for the Beaverton Mayor’s Office. She said people don’t drive while looking through a camera lens, so they’d never actually see the light when it’s black.

But the red-light camera snapping off tickets to drivers is set to fractions of a second. And that can make a difference in who is ordered to pay the $260 fine. “A wire going from the signal box, it's connected to the red phase and the camera equipment is not triggered until the light is red,” Thompson explained.  She said that makes the red-light camera and the timing of the yellow light accurate.

Jarlstrom, meantime, took his concerns to the Beaverton City Council. Public Works Director Peter Arellano said the 3.5 seconds used to time the yellow light is just a “nominal” number.

“The actual minimum time required for the yellow light is 3.2 seconds for that design speed,” said Arellano.

But that’s not how the system is set, and it’s not the standard set by the city’s website.

City officials admit, calibration of the light is not an exact science. On one hand, they said the chip inside the signal box is accurate, telling Unit 8 ”When we test the chip inside the signal box, we’re getting 3.5 seconds.” 

But, Arellano added, “Even with the discrepancy in timing, which is typical for that type of chip, it’s not a crystal-based chip.”

Drivers paying fines for violations complain that the city should not settle for any discrepancies. When a ticket costs $260, Galati said, every “split second” counts.

“I’m just irritated," he said. "Every time I come up to this light, I get paranoid.”

Thompson assured that the timing of the light and the red-light system is working properly. “The focus here ought to be: 'Are we running a fair and proper program and are people being treated fairly when they drive through,'” she said.

Overall, Beaverton officials said they’ve seen a 41 percent drop in injury accidents at intersections with red-light cameras.

They added that a large majority of people getting caught by the red-light cameras do not live in the City of Beaverton.

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