Yellow Light Timing

Yellow lights in Bellingham are observed and commented on, as Bellingham prepares for red light cameras.

Yellow lights in Bellingham are observed and commented on, as Bellingham prepares for red light cameras.

• Topics: Bellingham, Law & Justice,

Ever since John’s little flapdoodle over the introduction of red light cameras, I’ve been keeping a stopwatch in my car and measuring the yellow light periods. As Ham noted, Holly Street in Bellingham seems dangerous because of the short yellows. Now the results are in, I can say that Holly and Magnolia Streets have the shortest yellow periods I’ve found: they are three seconds or slightly less. Every other yellow I’ve timed has been three and three quarters to four seconds. All of the traffic lights controlled by the Washington Department of Transportation (those at freeway on and off ramps) are yellow for four seconds. Lights in the county (on Meridian and Hannegan) and in beautiful downtown Ferndale are over three and a half seconds with several measuring about four seconds.

The traffic standards organizations recommend that no traffic light be yellow for less than three seconds where the speed limit is 25 mph and four or five seconds minimum when the speeds are faster.

The lights in downtown Bellingham are a mystery. Trying to drive at the speed limit with the lights in sequence has always been frustrating. If traffic is slow, it’s possible to hit every single light as a red. I always have the feeling that the yellow time is too short and now I know it’s true.

The intersections at State and Railroad are wide enough that three seconds is frequently not long enough to leave the intersection before the light turns red. Twice I’ve timed the lights going west on Holly at Railroad and had the light turn yellow as I was entering the intersection and red before I left it.

Studies by traffic safety organizations have shown that accidents are frequently caused by too little time on the yellow cycle. Some studies have shown that increasing the yellow period by one second reduces accidents by 30%.

The clincher for me was the fact that the yellows on Holly and Magnolia are too fast to clear the intersection before the light went red under normal traffic densities. The city needs to fix this.

About Paul deArmond

Closed Account • Member since May 29, 2009

Paul de Armond was a writer, reporter and research analyst. He is the recipient of the Whatcom Human Rights Task Force 2001 Human Rights Award. In the 1990s, he and Jay [...]

Comments by Readers

James J Johann

Jan 01, 2011

It’s about revenue; not safety.


Ryan M. Ferris

Jan 01, 2011


One look at the press releases on this site:

and you can see that red light cameras are being installed across the nation in a time of recession. The debate is:
“Are they a safety solution or a revenue solution?”

Whatcom County and Bellingham use the nationally approved “ITS Monitoring System” to monitor all traffic in Whatcom County.
An excellent document provides information on this here: . It includes this quote:

“Whatcom County Traffic Signals
The City of Bellingham operates the traffic signals for
other cities in Whatcom County.  The systems use loops
embedded in the road as well as the Bellingham Traffic Management Center to monitor the flow of traffic.”

WCOG has some jurisdictional influence over “ITS” and explains more here: But what really interests me is the depth of “ITS” and its security abuse potential. This DHS document shows how easy a subtle hack can be used to raise city revenue:

“Italian Traffic Lights
Feb, 2009 Italian authorities Event investigating unauthorized changes to traffic enforcement system. Rise of over 1,400 traffic Impact tickets costing > 250K Euros in two month period. Engineer accused of Specifics: conspiring with local authorities to rig traffic lights to have shorter yellow light
causing spike in camera enforced traffic tickets”

If any of these pdfs disappear after I post them, let me know and I will repost them on-line.However, all the ITS documentation and software is available on-line.  Bellingham’s database of traffic signaling might contain enough information to police any system or at least to request (through Public Disclosure Requests) yellow light timing.

In reality, WCOG could post this information in real-time, including red-light offenses, time of offense, traffic flows. With all the traffic cameras being deployed across the nation,a study on effectiveness should have plenty of data available for some Ph.d student’s thesis, if the data doesn’t become classified! (LOL)....


Paul deArmond

Jan 03, 2011

I got interested in this because it’s a good example of the difference between reporting and infotainment.  Reporting gets the facts and then interprets what they mean.  It’s meant to inform people.  There are surprises.  You learn something new.  That’s news.

Then there’s infotainment;  start out with an opinion and collect facts that appear to support that opinion.  It’s not meant to inform, only manipulate.  Nothing new comes up in infotainment, it’s just reinforcing previous attitudes.

What caught my attention about the yellow light controversy was listening to people assert - without any basis in fact - that the city was shortening the yellow light period to acclimatize things for some revenue grab using red light cameras operated by contractors.  The obvious test was to see if there were variations in yellow light timing and if any of these variations were to shorten the timing to cause more red lights to be run.

The short answer is no.  It seems to be a case of people making up their minds in the absence of much knowledge of the situation.  If you are going to allege abuses, then something other than assuming you are right needs to be produced as evidence.

When I described the traffic light controversy to a friend from out of town, he reminded me of the Hoyt Axton song:

And old charlie’s working out real good
Down at the corner store where the red light is
He sees them out of state plates two blocks away
And when they get right up on top of that green light
Old charlie pushes that secret button underneath the corner drugstore counter
That yellow light only lasts for a tenth of a second


David Camp

Jan 03, 2011

I think that traffic management in Bellingham is pretty good - it’s possible to get across town efficiently by car without undue delay. Some exceptions exist, however:

1) The Guide is a horrible mess, seemingly designed to slow cars down to benefit businesses. And try walking or riding a bike along the Guide - it has been designed to actively discourage walkers and bikers.

2) Has anyone else noticed that you need to go 30 mph to hit the green lights consistently along CHestnut? Strange to synchronise the traffic lights to necessitate going 5 mph over the limit, no?

3) While improving, the City could and should do a much better job to make walking and cycling around town safer and more efficient. The crosswalks at Ohio and James are an excellent move in this direction!

A good way to make the streets safer for bikes and pedestrian is to increase yellow light times, especially on wider streets.

If the revenues from red light cameras are earmarked for pedestrian and cycling improvements, I would support that.

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