Red Light Running


“In 2012, 683 people were killed and an estimated 133,000 were injured in crashes that involved red light running. More than half of those killed were pedestrians, bicyclists and occupants in other vehicles who were hit by the red light runners.” – Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS)

“More than half of the [annual] deaths are pedestrians and occupants in other vehicles who are hit by the red light runners.” – IIHS

“…motorists are more likely to be injured in crashes involving red light running than in other types of crashes. Occupant injuries occurred in 45 percent of the red light running crashes studied compared with 30 percent for other crash types.” – IIHS


Roughly a third of all collisions occur at intersections.  This increases in urban areas where intersections occur much more frequently along the route of the typical driver.  Intersections can be considered “controlled” or “uncontrolled” by the presence or absence of signals and/or signs.  Controlled intersections may feature yield or stop signs, but often have traffic signals.

Red light running is defined by a vehicle entering an intersection after a signal light has turned red; however, other situations could be included in this definition such as turning right on red when prohibited, and failing to come to a full stop before conducting a permitted right turn on red.  Many drivers become comfortable taking risks at intersections because they’re in a hurry or because they’ve been “lucky” enough to have avoided crashes in the past.

Red light runners not only place themselves at great risk of injury, but they run a high risk of hitting pedestrians, cyclists and other vehicles.  These “other” people make up roughly half of all the fatalities associated with this pattern of behavior.  

Who Runs Red Lights?

The Insurance Institute of Highway Safety regularly conducts studies of various traffic safety issues.  In one of their studies they “compared red light runners with motorists who had an opportunity to run a red light but did not”.   According to the study; “…red light runners were younger, less likely to use safety belts, had poorer driving records, and drove smaller and older vehicles than drivers who stopped for red lights. Red light runners were more than three times as likely to have multiple speeding convictions on their driver records. No gender differences were found between violators and drivers who did not run red lights.”

Other experts on traffic safety (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, have also commented that drivers run red lights for essentially two reasons:  inattention (they didn’t intend to run the light) or selfish and assertive driving (they meant to do it because they were in a hurry or felt entitled to do it).  Each type of driver is frightening – some are busy texting and others know precisely that what they’re doing is wrong, but they do it anyway risking other people’s lives in the process.

The sobering thought is that the “victims” of red light running crashes are random – it could be you or a relative that gets hit broadside by a red light runner.  That’s one of the reasons that this issue is a top priority in many communities, and why so much emphasis has been placed on stopping this dangerous behavior.

Be Alert When Approaching Intersections

When driving in urban areas with many intersections, or when you spot an intersection in the distance, minimize your own distractions (radio, conversations with passengers, etc.) and focus on the road ahead.

Even if you see that the traffic light is green (clear to proceed) at the next intersection, be cautious – drivers may still cross your path even though you “have the right of way”.  Some folks talk about “stale green lights” – if you first notice the signal while it is already green, it is likely to change before you reach it – be prepared to stop if needed.

If you see that the light is actually changing from green to yellow prepare to stop - the light could change very quickly as you approach the intersection.

Your stopping distance depends on your speed and roadway conditions.  In most urban situations, speed limits are typically kept low to enable shorter stops in response to traffic control signals.  Remember that the IIHS study, identified speeders as more likely to run red lights – monitor your speed closely in urban areas (speeding can also lead to rear-end collisions and/or pedestrian collisions).

Left and Right Turns

When turning left, do not move out into the intersection behind another vehicle that is also turning left – you may become “stranded” when the traffic control signals change.  If you are in the intersection as the traffic signal changes to red, complete your turn as soon as it is safe to do so to avoid becoming stranded in the intersection.

When legally permissible to turn right on red, make sure that there are no pedestrians around your vehicle and double check for vehicles that may enter from alleys or driveways.  After a full stop, and when you are sure that the way is clear, execute your maneuver quickly and with confidence – conditions can change quickly.

Photo Controlled Intersections

Many cities are installing cameras at key intersections to enforce traffic rules.  In many common situations signs are posted in advance of the actual intersection alerting motorists of the cameras.  

The cameras are set so that only those vehicles that enter an intersection after the light has turned red are photographed. Typically, vehicles that enter on yellow and are still in an intersection when the light changes to red aren't photographed; however, there remains a concern about extended length vehicles such as tractor trailers which may trigger the camera unfairly.

Most cities have a review process where specially trained officials (or contractors) review every picture to verify vehicle information and ensure that the vehicle is in violation. Tickets are mailed to vehicle owners in cases where it's clear the vehicle ran the red light.

Red light cameras are currently permitted in a growing number of states: as of May 2014 there are twenty-five states that permit the use of intersection cameras to issue tickets to red light runners.  Violations photographed by red light cameras are most commonly treated in one of two ways -- as traffic violations or as the equivalent of parking tickets, depending on state law.  Some of the major cities using cameras for law enforcement include: New York City; Washington, DC; Baltimore; Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco, California; Phoenix, Arizona; and Charlotte, North Carolina.  Additionally, many smaller communities are seeking grants to add these programs to improve traffic safety.  According to IIHS, there are 503 communities with red light camera programs as of May 2014.


Remember, if you run a red light, you risk:  a moving violation; damage to your vehicle; personal injury, increased insurance costs; and the consequences of injuring or killing someone who was in the intersection and involved the crash. If you see a signal controlled intersection ahead, and the light was green when you first recognized it, the signal is likely to change by the time you reach it – be prepared to stop.  Most signal indicators are timed based on very specific calculations based on the roadway design, traffic volume and posted speed limit.  In most cases, you should be able to safely stop upon recognizing a yellow light indicator.

Driving safely is each driver’s responsibility – will you commit to avoid running red lights?