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Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 66· No. 2 > Red Lights Mean Stop

Sept/Oct 2002
Vol. 66· No. 2

Red Lights Mean Stop

by Patrick Hasson

Photo of red lightFive years ago, on October 27, 1997, Ann Sweet's daughter died in a crash that involved red light running, a behavior that created long-lasting consequences for Sweet, her family, and society. Today, Sweet supports any efforts that will help alleviate this personal and societal burden. "In a country that finds every life so very precious," she says, "we must exhaust all means available—proper engineering, public education, and consistent enforcement—to ensure that travel on our Nation's highways is a safe experience for all who use them."

In 2000, red light running accounted for approximately 106,000 crashes, 89,000 injuries, and 1,000 deaths. The cost to the public is estimated to be $8.5 billion per year. Additionally, more than 95 percent of drivers surveyed in 1998 by the National Stop Red Light Running Partnership said that they are concerned about the actions of other drivers when they approach an intersection. Yet in a second national survey in 1999, 56 percent of Americans admitted to running red lights. This number represents all income, gender, and educational backgrounds.

To address this safety problem, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) established the Stop Red Light Running Program in 1995 as a community-based safety initiative. The program raises awareness of the dangers of red light running and helps reduce fatalities in many of the participating communities. Since April 1998, the American Trauma Society has been a national partner with FHWA to continue the Stop Red Light Running Program.

Sign- Red Light? Maximum fine $270.00

Photo of officer at podium speaking to a crowd
Stop on Red Week provides local communities with the opportunity to bring attention to the problem through events such as this one in Maryland.

FHWA Associate Administrator for Safety George Ostensen points out, "We continue to find that Stop Red Light Running strategies and countermeasures are effective in reducing the number of right-angle crashes at intersections." He notes the importance of safety partnerships representing the wide variety of interests within the 3E's of education, engineering, and enforcement.

Educating the Driver

Harry Teter, executive director of the American Trauma Society, says, "Red light running is second only to drunk driving in lives lost needlessly." When driver behavior is the principal cause of red light running, two possible approaches are education and enforcement, working in tandem or alone.

Photo of truck crashing in a car
Red light running crashes such as the one shown here are far too common and lead to the deaths of many innocent people.

The education and outreach activity is the most mature aspect of FHWA's Stop Red Light Running Program. The program has produced an array of informational materials to assist communities in developing and carrying out an educational campaign. Sample materials include:

  • Step by Step Guide: Provides guidance on how to develop a partnership and carry out a public education campaign to reduce red light running. The guide includes camera-ready artwork.
  • Radio and television public service announcements that highlight the red light running problem.
  • Tabletop displays for press conferences, meetings, and other public venues.

One of the principal means of capturing the public's attention and mobilizing resources to combat red light running is National Stop on Red Week. This annual event provides local communities with the opportunity to tie their message to the national program and expand their efforts. National Stop on Red Week takes place during the first full week of September every year. This year it is September 7-13, 2002.

Engineering the Roadway and Vehicle

In addition to the driver, the roadway is a second critical factor in the safety equation. In 2000, FHWA and the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) initiated preparation of an informational report, Making Intersections Safer: A Toolbox of Factors and Countermeasures to Prevent Red Light Running. The principal focus of the report will be to examine engineering features that should be upgraded to ensure that intersections are designed to discourage red light running. The report also will serve as an educational tool for law enforcement agencies and others who may be designing red light camera systems. The publication will be available from ITE and FHWA in winter 2002.

Prior to performing any work or installing any countermeasures, communities are advised by FHWA to conduct engineering reviews in order to determine if the problem is behavioral or infrastructure-related, requiring engineering improvements such as signal timing, roadway geometrics, or signal visibility.

"The use of engineering countermeasures can help reduce the extent of the red light running problem in this country," says Thomas Brahms, ITE executive director. "Transportation professionals need to ensure that the design and operational parameters of an intersection work in tandem to reduce the number of motorists running red lights."

Another critical factor is the vehicle. FHWA is conducting research under the auspices of the Intelligent Vehicle Initiative in a project called the Intersection Collision Avoidance Program. The research is intended to produce infrastructure-based systems that can provide warning to drivers who are going to violate a signal or warning to drivers who are approaching an intersection where an opposing driver may be about to violate the signal. These systems could be ready for demonstration in 3 to 5 years.

The program will build on these technologies to develop cooperative systems that will provide in-vehicle warning and other information or automated action to prevent crashes. Though the technology already exists for many of these systems, market penetration is expected to take 20 to 30 years.

Enforcing the Law

The threat of enforcement is a strong deterrent that affects driver behavior in a variety of situations, including red light running. Generally, drivers will modify their behavior, depending on their perception of being caught and facing consequences. Manned enforcement (officers at intersections) is effective, but the effect is usually limited to where and when the officers are operating. Traditional manned enforcement can be dangerous, because it often requires an officer to also run the red light to catch the violator. If officers work in teams to avoid the need to run the red, then the cost may be prohibitive.

Photo of car after running red light
When swift and guaranteed enforcement is assure, people such as these who have just been caught on camera running a red light, tend to modify their driving behavior.

New enforcement techniques are available that can reduce the cost of enforcement, lessen the danger of enforcement to the officers, and increase the perception of the driver that he or she will be caught. Two solutions are red light signal indicators and red light cameras.

Red light signal indicators are small lights mounted on the backside of a traffic signal to inform a downstream officer when the signal has turned red. The indicator light enables an officer to identify red light runners and stop them without the officer having to go through the red light.

Another technology, red light cameras, is designed to predict when a red light running violation is about to occur and then to take a photograph of the violation. Both systems reduce costs and increase officer safety. However, the camera technology has the added advantage of creating the perception that every red light violation will be noticed and enforced.

Today more than 70 communities in 12 States and the District of Columbia are using camera technology to enforce red light running. The isolated manner in which many communities have implemented red light camera programs has led to significant differences across the country. As a result, several programs have been placed under severe legal scrutiny. Although such scrutiny has not led to the demise of any programs, it has brought to the surface a number of serious issues related to camera program practices. To help address these problems, the FHWA will begin work with other U.S. Department of Transportation agencies on guidelines for use by State and local agencies.

A central premise of FHWA's communication on red light camera programs is that they must be used strictly to enforce traffic laws with the intent to reduce crashes, injuries, and fatalities. Camera programs must be coupled with outreach campaigns to inform the public about the enforcement and encourage good driving behaviors. In addition, engineering reviews and appropriate improvements are essential at candidate intersections for camera enforcement. Finally, camera programs require effective partnerships and communication among police, engineers, and the public.

Photo of Jeep entering intersection and turning left Photo of Jeep crashing into truck at intersection
Photo of car stopped at light and 2 cars passing in front Photo of car that was stopped, broadsiding car in intersection
Photo of cars at intersection Photo of cars crashing at intersection
The stark reality of red light running comes to life in these photos of a vehicle entering an intersection after the onset of red and then slamming into the side of another vehicle. The first series is from an intersection in California.

Information Available

FHWA and its partners have made a number of materials available through FHWA's Web site (http://safety.fhwa.dot.gov/). The materials include the following reports and studies:

  • Measuring Driver Behaviors for the Stop Red Light Running Program (a national survey)
  • Summary Report: Phase I of the Stop Red Light Running Campaign
  • Automated Enforcement of Traffic Signals: A Literature Review
  • A Step by Step Guide for community-level stop red light running campaigns
  • Intersection Safety Outreach Toolkit

In addition to the FHWA Web site, the following Web sites contain useful red light running materials:

  • The American Trauma Society: www.amtrauma.org
  • The Institute of Transportation Engineers: www.ite.org
  • The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety: www.iihs.org

More Information on the Way

Several national-level projects are underway that will continue to emphasize solutions to the red light running problem. One of the more notable recent initiatives was the Intersection Safety Workshop held in Milwaukee, WI, in November 2001. The workshop resulted in a National Agenda for Intersection Safety in which red light running is highlighted.

In another effort, the National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP) is developing a synthesis (project 32-03) on the "Impact of Red Light Camera Enforcement on Crash Experience." Although many communities have evaluated cameras and reported positive benefits, the existing evaluations are presented in a wide variety of formats and focus on an array of crash features. The NCHRP synthesis, to be completed in fall 2002, will document and discuss the findings of these separate studies.

In cooperation with the Institute of Transportation Engineers, FHWA also is distributing an Intersection Safety Issue Briefs package that provides valuable information.

The National Campaign to Stop Red Light Running, an independent organization that advocates assertive action to stop red light running, has completed a best practices guide for red light camera programs. Entitled Stop on Red = Safe on Green, it provides guidance for communities who want to implement camera programs.

Finally, FHWA and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials sponsored an international scan on signalized intersection safety. In May 2002, a group of experts visited Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. A number of the preliminary recommendations feature innovative solutions for reducing red light running. A summary of the findings and recommendations is available from FHWA (contact fred.ranck@fhwa.dot.gov), and the final full report will be available in spring 2003.

A reduction in red light running can result from effective engineering, education, and enforcement. In the final analysis, however, it is the driver who must take ultimate responsibility for stopping on a red light.

Is Saved Time More Valuable Than a Saved Life?

Leslie Blakey, national coordinator of the National Campaign to Stop Red Light Running, says, "Red light running, like other forms of aggressive driving, is on the rise. This is largely due to the combination of a low expectation of being caught and a prevalent attitude that says, 'Is your time more valuable than your safety?' Consistent enforcement by red light cameras to supplement traditional policing is an effective and nondiscriminatory way to reduce the incidence of this irresponsible and highly dangerous behavior."

National surveys indicate that most people who run red lights do so because they are in a hurry. What begins as a hurried act of running a light, with only a split-second check for safety, soon becomes a bad habit that will last a lifetime, and that lifetime may be short. The time saved by avoiding a red light is not worth a human life. It is therefore critical for drivers to recognize that they can prevent intersection crashes by observing all traffic controls, driving the proper speeds, and being aware of other drivers.


Patrick Hasson is the Safety and Operations team leader in FHWA's Midwestern Resource Center. In this position, he is involved in regional, national, and international projects in the areas of geometric design, Intelligent Transportation Systems, and safety engineering, education, and enforcement. Hasson and his team provide extensive training, technical assistance, and expert advice to State departments of transportation, local officials, national organizations, and others. He is the national coordinator for the FHWA Stop Red Light Running Program, is actively involved in the intersection safety programs, is chairman of an international expert group focused on safety and technology, and participates in a variety of panels and committees for the National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP), Transportation Research Board (TRB), and Institute of Transportation Engineers. He spent 2 years in the Road Transport Research Program at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Prior to these assignments, Hasson worked on a variety of transport projects and programs with FHWA, including extensive activities associated with the transportation impacts of the North American Free Trade Agreement. He holds a B.S. in engineering from the University of Maryland and an M.S. in engineering from Cornell University.

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