Look up, red-light runners

May 03, 1994|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Sun Staff Writer

Drivers who are prone to running red lights would be wise to look out for helicopters and planes.

The state is enlisting aircraft to help crack down on one of the most basic of traffic violations: running red lights. State police and law enforcement agencies from Baltimore and six suburban counties have joined in the ticket-writing effort.

"Running red lights is a growing traffic safety problem," said Hal Kassoff, head of the State Highway Administration, which is coordinating the campaign. "Speed has long been monitored from the air, but we've never been able to do that for running red lights. Now we can."

To make that possible, SHA engineers have devised a system so that airborne police can see when a traffic light has turned. In the first demonstration yesterday, workers activated two airport lights mounted on a pole at the intersection of Route 175 and Tamar Drive in Columbia.

When traffic on Route 175 gets a red signal, the overhead lights turn red, too. If a helicopter spotter sees a car enter the intersection after the signal has turned red, the spotter can radio a police officer on the ground to pull the car over.

The SHA plans to install the same equipment at two other locations that have been identified as problem intersections: U.S. 40 and Ridge Road in Howard County, and Route 450 and Jennifer Road in Anne Arundel County.

Mr. Kassoff said the agency is also working on a portable system that will allow police to set up the system at any intersection in the state. The three-month trial program will cost $51,000 and is partly financed by the federal government.

State police and police in Baltimore City and Baltimore, Anne Arundel, Howard, Harford, Prince George's and Montgomery counties have agreed to strengthen enforcement as part of the campaign. Most will be working the old-fashioned way -- on the ground, staking out hazardous intersections.

"We're going to pay more attention to the lights and work in specific areas where we've had accidents," said Col. Larry W. Tolliver, state police superintendent.

In addition, Maryland Transportation Secretary O. James Lighthizer has urged District Court judges to increase the penalty assessed scofflaws from the current one point on a driver's license and $50 fine.

In 1992, the most recent year for which figures are available, drivers who ran red lights caused an estimated 3,700 traffic accidents in Maryland, resulting in 20 deaths.

Running lights is the cause of a growing number of accidents -- 2.74 percent in 1982 and 3.71 percent in 1992.

Organizers say that even with police writing more tickets and helicopters circling overhead, curbing such widespread behavior is a daunting task. Yesterday, the SHA released two 30-second radio commercials reminding motorists of the perils of ignoring traffic signals.

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