The dangers of running a red light

Neil Bartlett

Running red lights is a common and dangerous practice. Common: About one-third of those surveyed in 2010 by the AAA Foundation for Highway Safety said they'd run a red light in the past 30 days. Dangerous: An estimated 676 people were killed and another 130,000 injured across the country in 2009 as a result of these crashes.

“There are a multitude of perils that await if you push your luck running a red light,” says Mike Barry, a spokesman for the Insurance Information Institute.

The Federal Highway Administration says you or your loved ones are more likely to be killed by a red-light-running crash than any other kind. The nonprofit Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reports that a half of those who die in red-light-running crashes are other drivers and pedestrians. The total cost to the public from these crashes is estimated at more than $230 billion a year.

In the red?

Even if a crash doesn't occur, you still can be slapped with a costly traffic ticket and end up with a bad mark on your driving record if you run a red light. Dozens of U.S. cities now have cameras positioned at certain intersections that are on the lookout for red-light runners.

Of course, let's not overlook the fact that a red-light-running crash can increase your car insurance premiums. The jump in premiums varies from one customer to the next, says Dick Luedke, a spokesman for State Farm. Car insurance companies regularly look at a variety of factors when considering a hike in your premiums, such as driving record (including accidents caused by running a red light), type of car, claims history, vehicle use, location and age.

“We use every piece of publicly available information that we think will help us predict the likelihood of future claims,” Luedke says. “At-fault accidents are more predictive of future accidents than not-at-fault accidents.”

Drivers often think it’s the “other guy” who runs red lights and that it’s not a problem for them. The AAA Foundation for Highway Safety survey shows that 93 percent of drivers consider it unacceptable to drive through a light that’s has already turned red when they could have stopped safely. But as noted, about one out of every three people surveyed acknowledged that they'd run a red light in the previous month.

Impatience is not a virtue

Barry says impatience is the primary reason that drivers run red lights. “There’s somehow a belief that red lights are keeping people from their scheduled appointments,” he says. “In fact, the lights are an essential component of public safety.”

Dan Bleier, a spokesman for the AAA Highway Safety Foundation, says a lack of planning prompts some drivers to run red lights. “Make sure you plan ahead and get in your car a little bit early so you don’t feel that pressure to speed and get through the light,” he says.

Without that planning, issues like impatience and frustration can harm your driving behavior. “If you can allow a few extra minutes for your commute, you can withstand some long lights,” Luedke says.

Urban hazards

Running a red light is dangerous whenever it occurs, but in urban settings it’s even more perilous, thanks to more more drivers on the road. Running a red light or disobeying other traffic controls is the most common cause of urban crashes, with someone running a red light an average of every 20 minutes at big-city intersections.

However, there are situations when it’s more appropriate for a driver to go through a yellow light instead of slamming on the brakes, especially when it means avoiding a collision. “It’s a judgment call,” Bleier says.

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