Original post date: June 05, 2013
Article by: Anonymous

In the news recently is a story that the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), in conjunction with municipalities around the state, has been responsible for shortening yellow light durations below the minimum level recommended by the federal government. The story, broken by 10 News in Tampa, has drawn national attention in large part because of how small changes in light duration can lead to large increases in revenue from red light cameras, estimated in the news report to be in the neighborhood of $50 million. The ticket revenue generated by the red light cameras is shared between state and local governments, making the situation a win-win for everyone involved. Unless, of course, you count Florida’s drivers.

Making the story particularly interesting is the fact that the change was allowed by simply deleting three words from the state rules governing yellow light duration. According to 10 News:

“When the Florida legislature approved 2010’s Mark Wandell Act, regulating red light cameras across the state, FDOT had a long-standing rule that mandated yellow light calculations factor in either the posted speed limit or 85th percentile of drivers’ actual speed –whichever was greater.  The point of the law was to calculate safe stopping times for the majority of drivers on any given roadway.

But in 2011, FDOT struck the “whichever is greater” language from its Traffic Engineering Manual(TEM), reducing minimum yellow light lengths and allowing communities to re-time their signals at RLC intersections.”

This case highlights two points familiar to political economists, particularly public choice theorists: 1.) the view that government actors can be fully trusted to act in the public interest is faulty; and 2.) that such agents, acting in pursuit of profit, can exploit subtle changes in policy in order secure benefits for themselves at the public’s expense.

Stories like this serve to remind us why we should be wary of government; despite our wishes, it often acts in ways that cater to the interests of a few while shirking its responsibility to the public. For more on bureaucratic corruption, take a look at the recent IRS scandal. Over at Marginal Revolution, Alex Tabarrok highlights the connection between this case and the Drug War analysis of Florida State’s very own Bruce Benson and David Rasmussen.

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