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."