A Crime with No Punishment
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.