If you go stand at any busy intersection in Sacramento, you will see drivers running red lights on almost every single signal cycle. Of course this problem is not unique to Sacramento, but it is where I live and walk and bicycle, and I see it every day, at every signalized intersection. I am not talking about drivers entering the intersection on the yellow light, and not making it through before it turns red. I am talking about drivers entering the intersection when the light is already red. And quite often, they accelerate into the red light, making sure they can get through.
I call this bullying behavior. It says that I (the driver) is more important than anyone else. Me (the driver) making this light is more important than anything else in the world, which translates to my (the driver’s) convenience is more important than anyone else’s life. I (the driver) know that this is dangerous behavior, but I (the driver) don’t care.
My preferred word for this is actually terrorism. Terrorism, however, implies actions by individuals against states, or more often by states against individuals (state-sponsored terrorism). This is not that. But the intent is the same, to change other people’s behavior by the threat of violence, or actual violence. This is traffic violence perpetrated by entitled drivers against everyone else on the road. Terrorism may not be technically correct, but it sure sounds right.
Most drivers have adjusted to this by not starting into the intersection on the green, but waiting until the run light running driver has cleared. Same for people bicycling and walking. Most walkers know it is not safe to enter the crosswalk until all the cars have stopped, because usually they will not stop. But not all drivers, walkers or bicyclists know, and these are the people being killed or seriously injured at intersections.
Red light running has always been a problem, but it has gotten much worse. It accelerated, I think, during the pandemic, when there was less traffic, and drivers started to gamble with running red lights. Now that the traffic is mostly back, they are still doing it. In my observation, it gets worse by the month.
Many people think that the solution to traffic violence is to change road designs so as to prevent dangerous driver behavior. I’m of course in favor of this. But in this instance, re-design does not prevent this bullying behavior.
Having near-side traffic signals, as many advanced countries do, would help a little because a driver who chose not to stop loses information about how late on the red they are and therefore is less likely to run the red light. See Near Side Signals: Thinking Outside the Pedestrian Box for more info on near side signals. But this alone would not solve the problem.
Slowing speeds would help, as the red light running driver would be a little less likely to kill the walker, bicyclist, or other driver and passengers than at higher speeds. But the red light runners are in my observation the same people who are driving well over the speed limit, adjusting their risk tolerance for to the highest possible level that won’t get them killed. Of course, these are not drivers who are much concerned about killing other people.
The City of Sacramento has a Red Light Running Program. The page says there are 11 cameras in the city. Out of 4000 plus intersections. This is not a serious response to a serious problem. It is in fact the typical city response to any transportation issue, to do the absolute minimum possible to avoid being called out for doing nothing.
I believe from extensive observation (I walk a LOT), though I have no data to prove it, that red light running is done by a fraction of drivers, and those drivers do it again and again and again. They’ve gotten away with it, so far, and will continue. At least 3/4 are drivers of expensive cars, high income, entitled people. If that is so, it would not take much to greatly reduce this behavior. Ticket them again and again and again, whether directly by law enforcement officers or by automated cameras, and their behavior would gradually change. Of course if we set ticket fines based on the value of the vehicle rather than flat rates, and impounded and/or confiscated vehicles upon repeated infractions, it would change even quicker.
Law enforcement is complicit in this red light running. I have never seen a driver stopped for running a red light. Ever. And in fact, law enforcement drivers are just as likely to run red lights as any other. Law enforcement doesn’t like automated enforcement, because it reduces the opportunity for them to do pretextual stops. It also is seen as reducing the need for officers, though since they don’t do this enforcement anyway, I can’t see how it actually reduces the need.
Many people have called on the city to install more leading pedestrian interval (LPI) lights in the city, where the pedestrian indicator turns to walk 3 seconds or more before the parallel traffic signal turns green. These of course help, but even where they already exist, the interval is now taken up by the time a walker must wait for the red light running drivers to clear the intersection before proceeding. Much less effective at promoting walking and safety than it could be.
- The city could recognize that this is a serious traffic violence issue, and respond forcefully, with more enforcement and more automated cameras. The city’s Vision Zero policy obligates them to take traffic violence seriously, but they do not.
- The CA-MUTCD could be changed to require near side traffic signals instead of far side traffic signals.
- The state legislature and judicial council could change fines for violation of California Vehicle Code (CVC) to be based on the value of the vehicle. People often talk about basing fines on income, as some first world countries do, but income is not easily available to the law enforcement officer or processor of the red light camera mailed ticket, whereas the value of vehicles is available in the DMV database. If you run a red light in your $1000 clunker, the fine would be $1, and if you run a red light in your $200,000 trophy car, it would be $2000. To start.
- Along with higher fines for drivers of fancy cars, the vehicles of these drivers should be impounded for the third violation of the same CVC within a year. Impound means you get the vehicle back after a certain period of time, maybe three months. And for those drivers that doesn’t control, then the vehicle should be confiscated, meaning you don’t get it back and the agency sells it. Maybe for more than six violations of the same CVC within a year, or ten within three years.
- Walkers and bicyclists could equip themselves with paint ball guns so as to mark the vehicles of these bully drivers, so at least other people could see them coming. And perhaps other drivers would them start enforcing social pressure on them. It worked for smoking, when people who smoked in buildings and on transit were publicly shamed.
- And of course, in the long run, we do need to re-design streets to that red light running is less likely, and less likely fatal due to lower speeds.