Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Flagrant red light running

Along University Boulevard near The Oaks retirement home, there is a pedestrian-activated signal that stops traffic when a button is pushed by a person waiting to cross.  These signals are fairly common on roads in suburban Maryland, and they are visually similar to the type of signals used at fire stations across the state.  They have three stacked lights on each signal head: a big red light, a big yellow light below that, and a small yellow light on the bottom.  When not activated by a pedestrian, they small yellow lights flash in tandem at a steady rate as an advisory to motorists.

The type of signal in question.  The small yellow lights on the bottom flash constantly.  All photos by the author.

While this light is supposed to stop traffic, it doesn't do its' job very well.  After seeing a few motorists run the red light in the past, I decided to go up there and film the light, to see how many I could get on video.  I filmed the below video on Saturday evening, August 20th, and caught at least 15 people running the red light.  I was only there for about 35 minutes.  Some drivers ran it just after it turned red, and others blatantly ran it (without even touching their brakes) several seconds after it turned red.  It's a pretty shocking video:        

As you saw, it's alarming how many people passed that red signal.  I, like most people, assumed that drivers almost always stopped for red lights.  In my view, the only time someone would flagrantly run a red light in good weather conditions (adequate visibility, etc) is if they were on serious drugs (like PCP or Crystal Meth).  So how did I catch several drivers blatantly running a red light in just a 35 minute time frame?   Maybe they were all high on Crystal Meth, but I think there's a more plausible explanation.

The signal at The Oaks even has flashing warning lights in advance to warn drivers of the crosswalk.

I think the issue here causing so many red light violations is the nature of the signal itself, and not entirely the fault of the drivers (although it's obvious that some of the drivers in the video were not paying attention at all).  In my observation, I found that there are two classes of drivers who run this light and similar lights: those who run it within a second or two of it turning red, and those who blatantly run it several seconds after it turns red.  Both classes have different reasons for running it.

I think drivers who run the red within a second or two of it changing do so because they mistake the steady yellow light (to big yellow one in the middle of the stack) for the flashing yellow one underneath it.  As they approach the signal, they don't realize that the illuminated light is the steady yellow, and not the small flashing yellow one that they're used to seeing.  Sure, they see the yellow light on approach, but they're used to seeing some kind of yellow light lit-up at this type of signal.  When it switches to red, it comes as a surprise to these drivers.  They then either don't have enough time to stop, or find it too dangerous to slam on their brakes, so they pass through the red light.         

A close-up of the signal head.  The smaller bottom light is yellow and flashes constantly.  The middle light is also yellow, and only lights-up when the signal is about to go red. 

My theory as to why the second class of drivers, those who run the red light several seconds after it turns red without braking, run the red is because they are "immune" to this traffic light.  This signal is sporadically activated, and there's a good chance that many regular drivers on the stretch of MD 193 have never seen it lit-up red.  To many motorists, it's just a flashing yellow light that requires no action on their part.  Officially, a flashing yellow light means that drivers should "proceed with caution", but in practice, most drivers just pass through as if there's no light at all.  Since so many drivers are used to seeing this light in its flashing yellow phase, they aren't expecting it to turn red.  Hence, some of these regular drivers no longer observe the signal at all (they still see it, but they don't observe it anymore), which causes them to be immune to it.  

Signs like this reiterate state law to drivers, but a surprising number of drivers still run red pedestrian signals.

While I think this signal-immunity theory explains the behavior of these flagrant red light runners, it doesn't absolve them of responsibility.  Ideally, their licenses would be revoked immediately, and restored upon re-completion of drivers' education (anyone who is too zoned-out to notice a red light poses a serious danger to other road users).  The driver in the below video, who runs the light six seconds after it turned red, is an example of one of these zoned-out motorists.    

This blatant red light running isn't limited to pedestrian crossings.  It also happens at fire stations where these types of signals are in use.  The video below shows the driver of a white SUV running a red light on MD 193 (University Blvd) in front of the Glenn Dale fire station in Prince George's County.  The ambulance leaving the station has a flashing yellow signal, while cross traffic on MD 193 has a steady red.  The SUV driver fails to both see the signal and hear the ambulance's sirens/horns.                 

If these types of signals aren't even effective at fire stations, it's clear that they aren't going to be effective at crosswalks either.  Most drivers have no intention of running a red light, since they know it can lead to a fine and/or a serious collision.  If well-intentioned motorists are consistently running a red light, there's probably something wrong with the signal.  Maybe the solution is a HAWK signal, which only lights up when activated (rather than flashing all the time).  Or, maybe the solution is a standard green-yellow-red traffic light, which is a form of traffic control that drivers are already used to and normally obey.

In the meantime, I wrote to the Montgomery County Police requesting a red light camera at this signal, and I'm waiting on their response.  Hopefully they'll step up enforcement at this crossing, but increased enforcement is only a short-term solution,  There needs to be a substantive improvement at this crossing and others like it for the safety of all road users.          


  1. Do we know why upgrading this signal wasn't park of the redevelopment of North Four Corners Park? I usually cross at Brunett when I want to take my kids there, since it's a shorter walk and doesn't make a difference whether or not I use the crosswalk supposedly being protected by a traffic signal.

    1. This signal was only installed in 2011 or 2012. Prior to that, this crosswalk had a flashing yellow beacon only. The Brunett crosswalk, which as you know is only about 150 yards from this one, is leftover from when there was a school on the site of North Four Corners Park (which is why is has the neon green school crossing signs rather than the yellow lone pedestrian ones). I'm actually surprised the SHA didn't get rid of it in the 90's after the school closed, but now it should be kept since it provides important access to the park. Also, it's more convenient than the signal profiled in this post. Both of these crossings can and should be made safer. Thanks for reading.

  2. I live near the intersection of Georgia and Plyers Mill and see this sort of flagrant red light running almost every day on my way to work. I've asked for a red light camera before but I honestly don't think that will change much. I think drivers on Georgia are going too fast to begin with and think they need to be somewhere so it's their right to get there quickly. It amazes me each time I see it happen that people can be either so willfully dangerous or totally unaware of their surroundings.