Going straight ahead on red

January 17, 1994|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Staff Writer

If you believe running red lights has become a national menace, you have plenty of company in the ranks of police, traffic engineers, elected officials and ordinary commuters.

Despite the obvious risks involved, more and more motorists seem to have lost respect for the traffic signal. Explanations are as numerous as violations on a busy thoroughfare.

They range from the intriguing (perhaps laws allowing left and right turns on red have made lights seem voluntary) to the philosophical (the public's post-Vietnam loss of respect for government rules in general).

"It's become an epidemic in the city," Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke recently lamented. "People think red lights are a caution or something. The number of people running red lights has gone from mere nuisance to an outright dangerous situation."

Over the past 10 years, the percentage of traffic accidents in Maryland attributed to a motorist failing to obey a traffic signal grew by more than a third. In 1992, the most recent year for which figures are available, 20 people died in 3,700 collisions linked to running red lights.

While not well documented -- transportation researchers are unsure whether the behavior has truly worsened -- the anecdotal evidence of a growing problem is overwhelming.

"People have developed this behavior, they've become lax in following the rules of the road," said Sgt. Glenn A. Hansen, supervisor of traffic enforcement for the Howard County Police Department. "It's very frustrating."

The same stories can be heard on the streets of other jurisdictions in Maryland and are echoed by transportation agencies in nearly every state: Harried motorists are accelerating through intersections after the light has switched from amber to red.

"Society is in a hurry," said Lt. Howard B. Hall, commander of the Baltimore County Police Department's eastern traffic unit. "We hear every excuse there is, but the one that comes up most is that they were in a hurry. It seems as a nation we must be in a hurry to do everything."

Last spring, Howard County residents were outraged by a series of serious accidents involving motorists who ignored traffic signals. In one, a Columbia woman was killed, and her 12-year-son seriously injured by a dump-truck driver who ran a red light at Route 175 and Thunder Hill Road.

That case helped motivate a crackdown by Howard County police, who assigned teams of as many as a half-dozen officers at a time to stake out troublesome intersections.

Taking a cue from that effort, the state is embarking on a similar campaign.

Earlier this month, the State Highway Administration assembled a panel with representatives of law enforcement agencies from across Central Maryland to identify problem intersections, and discuss ways to address the issue.

The group wants to strengthen enforcement and wage a public education campaign. The SHA also has asked Gov. William Donald Schaefer to propose raising the penalty for running a red light from a one-point offense to three points on a driver's license.

"It may be a relatively small percentage of the public that runs red lights, but the consequences can be extraordinarily severe," said Hal Kassoff, the SHA's administrator. "Most people going through a red light are going at a high speed, probably accelerating."

National issue

The Federal Highway Administration has begun developing a campaign to raise public awareness of the dangers of running red lights and to award grants to police departments for %J cracking down on violations.

"We think this is a national issue," said Mila Plosky of the administration's Office of Highway Safety, which is developing a pilot program focused on Charleston, S.C. "You have to wonder if people don't understand why traffic signals are there."

A study released last year by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that motorists' failure to observe red lights, stop signs and yield signs was a leading cause of urban crashes. The trend was consistent in all four cities the research team surveyed: Akron, Ohio; Arlington, Va.; New Orleans, and Yonkers, N.Y.

Last month, researchers from the nonprofit organization began monitoring a single intersection in Virginia.

"We're seeing a very consistent pattern of red-light violations," said the institute's Richard A. Retting, a transportation engineer.

Richard A. Cunard, engineer of traffic and operations at the Transportation Research Board in Washington, said the widespread public perception that the problem has worsened "appears to be the case."

"Unfortunately, there is no 'before' data to compare the current conditions to," said Mr. Cunard. "We can't go back in time and test the theory."

Tom Hicks, the SHA's director of traffic and safety, theorizes that respect for red lights has dwindled as the legal opportunities to drive through a red light have grown.

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