Running Red Lights

While many drivers fear the stress-inducing crunch of high-speed traffic on Interstate and other multi-lane highways, the most dangerous place on the road might just be the busy corner near your house. If that well-traveled intersection is regulated by traffic signals, odds are that it could be the site of a serious accident. That's because, caught in a time crunch or simply not paying attention, thousands of drivers each day disobey traffic signals, failing to stop on red lights. The toll of this carelessness is staggering.

Each year red light running crashes result in nearly 1,000 deaths and about 90,000 injuries nationally. And, sadly, things are getting worse. Between 1992 and 1998, red light crashes increased at an alarming 18 percent. According to the Federal Highway Administration, 96 percent of drivers fear being hit by a red light runner upon entering an intersection, yet 55.8 percent admit to running red lights.

The leading excuse cited by the red light runners is "being in a hurry!" This sense of entitlement -- my time is more valuable than your safety -- combined with a low expectation of being caught is responsible for rampant disrespect for the rules of the road.

But some believe there is an answer to this growing problem. They advocate the use of automatic cameras that will catch red light runners in the act and result in their being fined. Some say that red light cameras aren't accurate or, worse yet, are a compromise of our Constitutional rights as Americans. But the California Board of Audits has completed its review of red light camera programs in California, finding the programs to be effective in reducing red light-running crashes.

"Statewide collision data indicates a 10 percent drop in accidents caused by motorists running red lights in areas with red light cameras compared to no change in the number of accidents in other areas," the report says. The report also notes that red light running crashes have increased 14 percent in San Diego since the camera program was suspended last year.

"Red light running is a reckless and preventable traffic safety menace and red light cameras provide a solution that works," said Monica Zech of the El Cajon Fire Department. "It's a matter of saving lives. The sooner we resume these lifesaving programs, the better."

Other studies of safety effectiveness in specific localities have also shown dramatic results. A recent audit of the San Diego program found that the number of crashes caused by motorists who run red lights dropped 44 percent at intersections with red light cameras. The red light camera program in Oxnard, California has resulted in a 46 percent reduction in injury causing crashes involving signal or sign violations.

"Aggressive driving is not a right, and red light cameras present no threat of any sort to safe drivers," said Leslie Blakey, executive director of the National Campaign to Stop Red Light Running. "But, getting people to change their behavior requires consistent enforcement. With photo enforcement, we can reverse the trend toward this irresponsible behavior."

Cleveland-based auto journalist Luigi Fraschini is always in a hurry, but he always manages to stop for red lights and for red flags waving.