Anarchy in the Intersection

Have you had a close call in an intersection?  Did you ever think you were about to meet your maker because some fool ran a light long after it had changed to red?  If you drive regularly, the answer is undoubtedly yes.  Perhaps you have several stories of panic and terror because someone failed to stop for a red light.

Why has driving through an intersection become the equivalent of putting your head in a lion’s mouth?  Why are cities across the land resorting to “red light” cameras as a way to raise revenue and enforce the law?  When did we turn our roads over to idiots, scofflaws and the mentally unbalanced?

As a street cop in a college town in the  mid-1970s I witnessed my share of stupid and erratic drivers.  I can still remember the roar of the engines as the impatient and feeble minded charged a traffic light as it began to cycle from green to red.  I can remember the efforts we made to deter these fools and cite them if necessary.  I can also remember when the bureaucrats and engineers made the decision that caused the number of people running red lights to increase dramatically.

Yes, the problem of people running red lights is not a new one.  In fact, it is likely that the first traffic signal in the country had its share of drivers who thought the “stop” light was only a suggestion, and possibly not a serious suggestion.  Going nowhere as fast as possible is an American tradition.

I am unaware of hard data on the number of vehicles running red lights at the average intersection, now or in the past.  It is likely no one can provide such data.  Which is why the data used to decide that an intersection is a problem intersection is accident data, not violation data.  Regardless of the lack of hard data, I think most traffic officers and traffic engineers would agree more people are ignoring red lights today than in the past.

Some might argue red light violations are more of a problem because there are more people driving cars than ever before.  Others may argue poorly trained drivers are the problem.  Still others may feel it is because people are more likely to ignore the rules and challenge authority these days.

More drivers do make a difference in the number of violations.  Poorly trained and unlicensed drivers have an impact as well, and it is likely the “question authority” and “me first” attitude of many people is a factor.  Still, the primary reason people run red lights today is because we made it so easy for them.  Additionally, we made it so attractive for many that they cannot pass it up.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the “nanny state” mentality was growing rapidly.  Seat belts, impact absorbing bumpers and anything else engineers could come up with were being forced on us to save us from ourselves.  At some point, traffic engineers and their bureaucratic superiors looked at controlled intersections and said, “We need to protect these poor fools that runs red lights.”

Have you heard the old saw that an elephant is a mouse designed by a committee?  That aphorism pales when compared to the solution developed to address the red light issue.  In the late 1970s traffic engineers started tinkering with traffic signals.  New technology allowed them to have real control over the way traffic lights function.

The limitations of electrical engineering prior to computerized circuits made traffic signals function relatively simply.  When the light changed from green to red on one street, the cross street’s light changed from red to green.  Everyone knew this, and everyone knew, or eventually discovered, that some drivers would floor it on the green, and someone charging a red light stood a good chance of causing an accident.

The name of the person or committee that proposed the “solution” to this problem may be on record somewhere.  However, it is likely the person who came up with the so-called solution realized it was a mistake and successfully erased any record of the decision.  Still someone made the suggestion, and later someone approved it.

The solution was to use the new technology to change the way the signals worked.  With new timing circuits and improved electronics, it was possible to have the lights for one street function independently of a crossing street.  It became possible to set the signals in a way that the signal would be red in all directions for a short period.

The thinking of course was that those who insisted on “charging” or “trying to make” the light would still run the red light.  The difference was the driver on the cross street would still be facing a red light, and even if he or she floored it when the light turned green, the red light runner would be through the intersection.

Those of us who were tasked with traffic enforcement and picking up the pieces realized quickly how serious this mistake was.  Within a few weeks of the implementation of the new plan, red light runners were charging intersections from much farther away and at much higher speeds.

Why wouldn’t they?  Under the old system, they knew the cross traffic might jump the light.  They watched for that and knew it was a danger.  Now, they discovered the powers-that-be had given them much better odds of running the light without conflict.  The problem is no one told these boobs how to judge distance and speed in a situation like this.  So, trial-and-error was the rule of the day, mostly error.

I have observed violations that occurred several seconds after the light turned red.  In many cases the cross traffic light turned green and there was time for a driver to pull into the intersection and be T-boned by a driver running the light at 20 miles per hour above the speed limit.  If you doubt this is true, take the time to review the information used to justify red light cameras in your city.

About S. Eric Jackson

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