One-woman campaign against traffic-light runners gains notice

May 10, 1994|By Adam Sachs | Adam Sachs,Sun Staff Writer

She's been called the Red Light Lady, the Make A Vow Lady and the One Who Puts Up Those Posters.

She's been hollered at, insulted and had fliers thrown back in her face, but she's also been thanked by nurses and police officers.

For the last year, since a woman she didn't know was killed in an accident at an intersection near her home, Oakland Mills village resident Sharon Gooden has doggedly pursued a solo campaign to stop motorists from running red lights.

"I couldn't get it out of my mind that it was just a mom taking her son to the dentist. It was so wrong," said Ms. Gooden of the April 29, 1993 accident at Route 175 and Thunder Hill Road which killed Suzanne Bice, 43, and seriously injured her son, Philip, now 12. The Bices' car was broad-sided by a dump truck that ran HHTC red light.

"I called the campaign 'Make A Vow' because I made a vow to Suzanne that I would do something," said Ms. Gooden, 41, who has three children.

One might have thought that Ms. Gooden had earned a climactic moment of recognition May 2, when she joined Gov. William Donald Schaefer and other state and county officials to see a demonstration of a new state program to detect red-light runners by helicopter and small planes.

But to Ms. Gooden, the demonstration at Route 175 and Tamar Drive was hollow, a "photo opportunity." It only added to her frustration in trying to persuade politicians and government administrators that there might be a more effective remedy.

"A helicopter is in no way a deterrent to running a red light," she said.

Instead, she has advocated a technique that has been tried in New York City in which hidden automated cameras are attached to traffic signals. The cameras are programmed to photograph license plates of cars in an intersection after a light has turned red, allowing law enforcement officials to issue citations by mail.

Ron Lipps, chief of the state's Traffic Safety Division, credits Ms. Gooden with bringing attention to the problem. Ms. Gooden helped instigate an initial meeting last June between Howard County and state officials on technology to crack down on

red-light runners.

"We disagree how to do it, but we both have the same goal to try to alleviate the problem," Mr. Lipps said.

The state's four-month pilot program, financed by a $50,000 federal grant, will allow airborne police to detect when lights turn red through overhead lighting equipment attached to signals at designated intersections. Spotters in the air can then radio police on the ground to pull a car over.

"The helicopter is just one technique. More is being done by conventional ground forces than airborne," Mr. Lipps said. "We hope [motorists] bear in mind that even if they don't see a police car on the ground, they might still be observed."

County Councilman C. Vernon Gray, D-3rd, who worked with Ms. Gooden on the issue, said the helicopter approach might not be cost-effective, but that it's important to "get the process rolling."

Mr. Lipps said the state hasn't abandoned the camera idea, but that legal obstacles currently would make it impractical.

Ms. Gooden contends officials did a cursory job researching the idea.

"There are so many things that could have been looked into and never were," she said. "Had it been a politician's or bureaucrat's idea, maybe we'd have it."

Ms. Gooden was so convinced that the camera technology could accomplish something that all her pleadings couldn't that she collected 2,000 signatures in support of the idea, explaining the concept at a July 4 celebration, in front of a Columbia Kmart and at the Howard County Fair.

In the weeks after Ms. Bice's accident, Ms. Gooden, who was involved in a collision at the same intersection in February 1993, posted signs at dangerous intersections asking motorists to stop for red lights. She did television interviews on busy highway medians.

Occasionally Ms. Gooden would follow motorists whom she had observed running a red light, flash her lights, and if they stopped, alert them to their violation. Predictably, responses were not always pleasant.

Ms. Gooden, who had never before been involved with government, became a reluctant activist, testifying in the General Assembly in February on an unsuccessful bill to stiffen penalties for red-light violations.

She admits the campaign became an obsession, but never an activity she enjoyed.

"I not only didn't like doing it, I was terrified, going to a truck stop to put up posters," she said. "The only thing I liked about it was when people told me they had changed. That meant something to me. The rest was frustrating and overwhelming."

Upon the anniversary of her effort earlier this month, Ms. Gooden said she told herself it was time to quit and remove the "Make A Vow" fliers from the windows of her van. But she's found that she can't abandon the effort. Just last week, two people who had heard about her campaign -- including a woman who had just been involved in an accident -- called her for advice.

"I have to keep listening to people's suggestions and putting people on a list to help," Ms. Gooden said. "There's an army of us willing to do something. I just don't know what it is."

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