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Friday, January 18, 2008, was going to be an exciting one for 9-year-old Tyler Brasseaux. His dad, Earl Wayne "Spike" Brasseaux, Jr., picked the boy up from Gray's Creek Elementary school, in Denham Springs, Louisiana (east of Baton Rouge), to go shopping for a present at a local store.
They never got there. At an intersection a block from the store, according to witnesses, a pickup truck hauling chopped wood sailed through a red light and broadsided the Brasseaux family's sedan on Tyler's side. Spike Brasseaux suffered serious injuries, but the fourth grader was killed instantly.
More than 100,000 crashes a year are caused by drivers running red lights, killing some 950 people and injuring 90,000 others, making it a leading cause of fatal crashes in metropolitan areas, according to the Department of Transportation's Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). Worse, the numbers are on the rise: Fatal motor vehicle crashes at traffic signals increased 19 percent nationally between 1992 and 1998 (the last year for which FHWA had statistics); over the same period, all other types of fatal crashes increased just 6 percent.
"This should be viewed as an outrageous epidemic," says Richard Retting, chief traffic engineer for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). "We're not talking about a rare illness that requires decades of billion-dollar research to prevent or cure. This is a situation where people are dying from something that's 100 percent preventable."
The high fatality rate associated with red-light-running crashes is partly attributable to the fact that they are usually "T-bone," or side-impact, crashes involving high speeds (since drivers often accelerate to get through a red light quickly). Indeed, images of vehicles broadsided at intersections often show cars cut in two or with pulverized midsections. "Of all the injuries we see, these are some of the worst," says Harry Teter, executive director of the 2,200-member American Trauma Society. "You're hitting the most vulnerable part of the car." Moreover, 53 percent of drivers in a 2008 online poll said their cars were not equipped with head-protecting side-curtain air bags, even though these devices cut driver deaths in side-impact crashes by nearly half. (Last year the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued a new regulation that mandates that new passenger cars have side air bags by 2012.)
Nearly eight in 10 drivers believe red-light running is a problem, and nine in 10 say it's dangerous. Yet more than five in 10 admit to having run red lights themselves; indeed, about 19 percent of drivers say they've run a red light in the past 10 "light cycles" (a light cycle is the full change from green to yellow to red). Red-light running is so pervasive that six in 10 Americans say they see a red light run more than once a week, and phrases like "California roll" (the failure to come to a complete stop at a red light or stop sign) are common in the public lexicon. "For the most part, people run red lights because they think they can," says Barbara Harsha, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, in Washington, D.C. "They're trying to save a second or two."
"Everybody's guilty," says Bryan Porter, PhD, associate professor of psychology at Old Dominion University. "We know it's a problem, we know it's dangerous, but we do it anyway."
Initially, Dr. Porter was skeptical that the practice was so common. But in 1999 he conducted a telephone survey of 880 licensed drivers nationwide and found a red light is run, on average, once every three cycles. Moreover, he found that violators do not conform to a single profile. They are professionals, blue-collar workers, the unemployed, homemakers, parents, teenagers, white, African-American, Hispanic, and Asian. Dr. Porter found a higher incidence (25.6 percent) among motorists driving alone; that rate drops significantly (15.8 percent) when there are kids in the car. Otherwise the practice cuts across all demographic strata.
Why, Dr. Porter wondered, did so many otherwise law-abiding citizens ignore a basic tenet of traffic safety? Were they distracted by cell phones or DVD players or backseat mischief? Did the fault lie with poorly designed roads or obscured signals? To his shock he discovered that the answer was far simpler than that: In the survey the number one reason cited was that the red-light runner was in a hurry.
"We're always rushing -- to get back to the office, to beat the repairman to the door," says Ann Sweet, of Warsaw, Indiana, who became a national spokeswoman for the National Campaign to Stop Red Light Running after her only daughter, Shawnee Ulrey, 21, was killed by a red-light runner weeks before she was to be married in 1997. "We see the consequences of not running the red light as greater than running it. We don't see it in terms of blood and guts and twisted metal."
Over the past 25 years the number of miles the typical driver travels has increased almost 95 percent in the United States while new road construction over the same period has grown just 6.6 percent. The result? A whopping 171 percent increase in road congestion. Not surprisingly, research shows a strong correlation between high traffic volume and red-light running.
Meanwhile, law enforcement has dwindled. In addition to battling violent crime, gangs, and drug activity, police departments must now monitor homeland security and sex-offender registries -- all at a time when high gas prices have boosted the cost of regular patrolling. "There are more drivers on the roads, more opportunity for drivers to misbehave on the road, and fewer policemen to deal with it," says Leslie Blakey, executive director of the National Campaign to Stop Red Light Running. "The chances of being caught are small."
So are the consequences: Although traffic laws are set locally and vary widely, in most areas running a red light, like breaking the speed limit, may not even classified as a criminal offense -- it's a misdemeanor handled in civil court. According to IIHS, fines range from as little as $25 in Pennsylvania to as much as $1,000 in Georgia and Utah but average about $100 nationwide. And unless an additional law is broken (if speeding or alcohol is involved, for example), the penalty is usually no greater even if the offense results in death or serious injury.
Some states also impose demerits or points on a violator's driver's license. Typically, a run red light is worth three or four points; the threshold for license suspension averages 12 to 15. But drivers can usually have these points cleared after completing a driver safety course or if sufficient time has elapsed (on average around 180 days). The driver who ran a red light and killed 30-year-old Mark Wandall in Bradenton, Florida, in 2003, for example, had been ticketed for failing to obey a traffic sign four years earlier. After Wandall's death the driver appeared in traffic court "right alongside a landscaper who had too much load in his vehicle," says Wandall's widow, Melissa, 40. The driver was fined $500 and ordered to do 60 hours of community service. Within 11 months the court accepted the community service in lieu of the fine.
Frank Hinds's grief over the loss of his 17-year-old daughter, Jennifer, two months before her high school graduation, in 1997, was also compounded as he watched the 18-year-old man who killed her by running a red light during both teens' high school lunch break walk away with a simple $105 fine.
Hinds teamed up with two other families whose loved ones were injured in red-light crashes to form the Red Means Stop Coalition in Arizona, the state with the nation's highest incidence of deaths from red-light running. In the decade since Jennifer's death, the group has passed and twice amended "Jennifer's Law," which now charges red-light runners who maim or kill as criminals in Arizona; levies fines of up to $1,000; requires community service, suspension of driver's license, and sometimes jail time; and can require restitution to victims' families of up to $10,000.
Advocates in other metropolitan areas would like to enforce stricter penalties. Maureen McCormick, assistant district attorney and chief of the Vehicular Crimes Bureau in the Nassau County, New York, District Attorney's Office, says she is sick of having to tell families there's nothing she can do when a loved one has been killed by a red-light runner. In addition to favoring the kinds of tough penalties that Hinds's group helped shepherd through the Arizona legislature, McCormick would like to see crash sites treated as crime scenes.
Among the ways that traffic safety engineers hope to reduce red-light running is by redesigning roads and light systems. The federal government has introduced "traffic calming measures" before reaching intersections throughout the country, says FHWA spokesman Doug Hecox, including roundabouts, which alleviate the need to stop, as well as curves to slow people down naturally, road texturing, and the words "slow down" painted on the road as drivers approach traffic lights. And many cities have experimented with lengthening yellow lights or having red lights on all sides for brief intervals as ways to minimize red-light running, with mixed results.
An effective tool for reducing red-light running is photo enforcement, which has been adopted by more than 300 communities in 26 states. Vehicles entering an intersection after the light has turned red activate cameras that take a photo of the offending vehicle, including its license plate. In most states, the person to whom the plate is registered then receives a ticket by mail.
According to a recent IIHS report, these cameras generally reduce violations by about 40 to 50 percent and injury crashes by 25 to 30 percent. Before red-light cameras were installed in Dallas, in 2007, for example, 31 percent of the city's accidents at traffic signals were attributed to red-light running. In the first year of the camera operation, intersection crashes were reduced about 56 percent and red-light running citations dropped 49 percent. Dallas now has 60 red-light cameras operating at the city's 1,296 traffic lights and may add more. "Violations are going down pretty drastically," says Elizabeth Ramirez, Dallas's assistant director of public works. "The cameras are changing driver behavior." In Baton Rouge photo enforcement began in February, just weeks after Tyler Brasseaux was killed. In approximately one month of operation 2,605 citations were issued to motorists caught on camera running red lights at five major intersections.
"One video shows three cars in a row going through the same red light," marvels Ingolf Partenheimer, city parish chief traffic engineer. "If you saw the stuff we're seeing from our drivers, you'd be horrified." He also emphasizes that a ticket cannot be issued unless the vehicle enters the intersection after the light has turned red. "We're not talking about people who enter the intersection on yellow and the light changes midway through."
Even so, the cameras have plenty of critics (including the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Motorists Association), who argue that they violate drivers' constitutional rights by invading privacy and denying a defendant his right to face his accuser. Last year the Minnesota Supreme Court agreed, unanimously ruling against the legality of Minneapolis's photo-ticket program on the grounds that it undercuts a citizen's right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. As Justice Sam Hanson pointed out, the red-light cameras ticket (and thus presume guilty) the owner of the vehicle, who may or may not be the driver. In February, however, the Ohio State Supreme Court ruled in favor of a red-light camera ordinance in Akron almost identical in wording to the Minneapolis statute. Red-light cameras also face state supreme court challenges in Iowa and Missouri.
Critics also contend that red-light cameras are nothing more than a hidden tax levied on motorists to generate revenue. "Our challenge to any city trying to install the cameras is that if they will try engineering improvements first, we guarantee they'll see a minimum 50 percent reduction in red-light running," says Aaron Quinn, spokesman for the National Motorists Association. The city of Philadelphia investigated that option; however, results did not eliminate the need for better enforcement. A 2007 study revealed that after yellow lights were engineered to last slightly longer than the standard three to six seconds (one second for every 10 mph of the speed limit), violations dropped 36 percent. But they dropped another 96 percent after red-light cameras were installed.
Perhaps most potent is the claim by critics that red-light cameras increase crashes when motorists stop too abruptly to avoid a ticket, a view supported by 2008 research at the University of South Florida. Camera advocates acknowledge that rear-end fender benders can be a side effect of photo enforcement but note that those accidents are not only less harmful than side-impact crashes but also decrease as motorists become accustomed to surveillance. "Deterrence is the key," says Russ Rader, media relations director of the IIHS. "When there's a certainty of getting a ticket, drivers are less likely to run a red light."
Getting drivers to reconsider their attitudes about red-light running, many believe, will be an undertaking akin to the seismic shift in public attitudes and laws won by Mothers Against Drunk Driving in the 1980s. MADD's public awareness campaigns and push for harsher consequences for drunk drivers are credited with reducing DUI-related deaths by about 42 percent. "Twenty years ago few people went to jail for drunk driving," says McCormick. "No one gets behind the wheel intending to harm someone. Changing the mentality of, 'Oh, he didn't mean it, so he shouldn't be punished' is no small thing."
Indeed, it's the only thing that motivates Mary Taylor, 42, to get out of bed most mornings. On Thanksgiving Day in 2006, Taylor was at home in Austin, Texas, waiting for her husband, Nelson, 45, and daughter, Andrea, 20, when she got word that both had been killed at a nearby intersection by a red-light runner who, along with the driver's wife and two young sons, walked away unscathed. "When it happened, I felt everything that mattered to me was gone," says Mary. "Nelson and Andrea were my whole life."
Taylor is forming a Texas advocacy group to create bumper stickers that read "STOP ON RED - NO ONE DEAD" and to lobby for criminal prosecution of red-light runners. "The seconds you save running a red light might be the last seconds of someone else's life," says Taylor. "It's that simple: Just stop."
Readers can go to www.stopredlightrunning.com/lhj and click on a form letter urging the federal government to encourage states to adopt automated enforcement laws to help reduce red-light running. The letters will be compiled by the National Campaign to Stop Red Light Running and sent to the White House early in 2009.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, August 2008.