Public Safety

Red-light runners making U.S. roads more deadly, with 939 fatalities in 2017

In Cedar Rapids, drivers blowing through lights cause more than 200 injury crashes

Vehicles roll along First Avenue East on May 31 as a traffic camera system is set up to monitor the intersection of Firs
Vehicles roll along First Avenue East on May 31 as a traffic camera system is set up to monitor the intersection of First Avenue and 10th Street NE near the MedQuarter district in Cedar Rapids. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

The number of traffic deaths nationwide caused by motorists running red lights has reached a 10-year high, a new study shows.

At least two people are killed every day on U.S. roads by drivers blowing through red lights, according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety’s analysis of government data.

The study looked at fatalities from 2008 to 2017, the most recent year data was available. Drivers running red lights killed 939 people in 2017. That’s an increase of 31 percent from a low in 2009, when 715 people were killed.

More than half those killed were passengers or people riding in other vehicles, while about 35 percent were the drivers who ran the red light. Pedestrian and cyclist deaths connected to red-light running represented about 5 percent of total deaths.

The study listed a number of possible factors behind the rise in fatalities, including distracted driving and more drivers on the roads who also are traveling greater distances.

Locally, one person has died this year in Cedar Rapids as the result of a driver running a red light. But data from the Cedar Rapids Police Department shows injuries from such crashes are a regular occurrence.

There were 217 injury crashes caused by drivers running red lights between Jan. 1 and Aug. 29. In those wrecks, 137 drivers, 77 passengers and three non-motorists (pedestrians, cyclists, etc.) were injured.


“The problem is not necessarily the frequency at which drivers are running red lights, it’s the severity of the injuries that happen when it occurs,” said Cedar Rapids Lt. Charlie Fields, commander of the Special Operations Unit. “And maybe it’s not a fatality, but accidents that occur as the result of a driver running a red light often result in serious injuries.”

That’s because red-light runners most commonly cause T-bone crashes, where the front end of one vehicle slams into the side of another.

“The weakest part of the vehicle is the door skin — the side — where there is less metal and less reinforcement,” Fields said. “That’s why we see a lot of vehicle intrusion in T-bone wrecks and, depending on the profile of the vehicles, rollover wrecks.”

To reduce red-light fatalities, AAA recommended the installation of red-light cameras in areas that have a pattern of crashes.

“Camera enforcement is a proven way to reduce red-light running and save lives,” said Jessica Cicchino of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Cedar Rapids already has placed red-light cameras at intersections that see a high number of crashes. In the past five years, those cameras have issued thousands of citations.

Police data shows red-light cameras issued 1,111 tickets in 2014 and 2,682 in 2015. In 2016, the cameras issued 2,146 red-light violations, and in 2017 the number of red-light tickets jumped to 2,814. Last year, 2,293 drivers’ vehicles were nabbed by cameras for running red lights before the cameras were turned off in September amid legal challenges. This year as of Aug. 29, 244 red-light citations have been issued since the cameras were turned back on July 1, and patrol officers have issued an additional 868 tickets for red-light violations.

The city has five red-light cameras in operation — First Avenue and L Street SW; First Avenue and 10th Street NE; Williams Boulevard and 16th Avenue SW; Edgewood Road and 42nd Street NE; and Center Point Road at the Collins Road ramp on the north side of Highway 100.


“Those locations were selected for red-light cameras because, when we first installed the cameras, those locations were intersections where we had a lot of motor vehicle accidents,” Fields said.

Police data shows that First Avenue and L Street SW, First Avenue and 10th Street NE and Williams Boulevard and 16th Avenue SW issue the highest volume of red-light tickets each year.

Fields said many factors contribute to that.

“First of all, those are high-traffic areas,” he said. “And second, we’re looking at numbers from places that have cameras that are there monitoring the intersection 24 hours a day, seven days a week vs. an officer watching an intersection for a half-hour or an hour or however long they have time to do that.”

After that, Fields said the design and location of each intersection comes into play.

“You have to look at their locations,” he said. “At Williams and 16th, you’ve got a very poorly designed intersection, and it’s a big intersection to try and get through. We have L Street and First Avenue where we have the interchange for Interstate 380, so people going to and from work are using that to get back on First Avenue or to get on the interstate, and they’re either rushing home or late for work. Then we have 10th Street and First Avenue, and that’s over by the hospital, so now we’ve got emergency vehicles traversing that area and drivers trying to traverse that area at the same time and there’s when accidents can happen.”

To improve safety, AAA recommended that drivers pay close attention to lights that have been green a long time because they likely will change as they approach the intersection, and that pedestrians make sure an intersection is clear before crossing. Pedestrians and cyclists also should be sure to make eye contact with drivers before crossing an intersection.

Fields also offered a bit of his own advice.

“Put down your phone, put down your cheeseburger, and pay attention to what you’re doing,” he said. “When you’re driving you should be paying attention to driving and what’s going on around you, not putting on your makeup or reading the news or texting your boyfriend or girlfriend. As much as we think we can multitask, we can’t, and the most important thing we should be paying attention to when we’re driving is driving.”

Driving a 2-ton vehicle that can easily injure or kill people when mishandled is a responsibility that demands full attention, he said.

“You know, we often talk about guns and all these types of weapons, but we all drive vehicles to and from places, and that is just as deadly when we do something wrong with it as any other weapon out there,” he said.

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