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.)