Study recommends photo surveillance to stop red-light runners

Posted: Monday, July 31, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- A national insurance institute study says Alaska is 13th in the nation for the rate of traffic deaths caused by drivers who run red lights.

More than two-thirds of the state's red light fatalities occurred in Anchorage, the study said.

Sixteen people were killed by red-light runners in Alaska in the seven years between 1992 and 1998, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the Arlington, Va., nonprofit organization that conducted the study. That works out to 2.7 fatal crashes per 100,000 residents over the period.

Running red lights is a growing problem that requires better enforcement, primarily photo surveillance to catch drivers who don't hit the brakes, the institute said. A car passing through the intersection at the wrong time triggers a camera that snaps a photo of its license plate.

The research was based on data from the U.S. Department of Transportation. It showed that deadly accidents at intersections increased 18 percent between 1992 and 1998. On average, more than 800 people were killed annually, totaling 5,951 people over the seven years nationwide.

It's estimated that more than 200,000 others are injured each year.

''It clearly indicates that drivers running red lights have become a menace everywhere,'' said Richard Retting, a traffic engineer with the institute. ''It's a sign of the times that drivers have completely forgotten the rules of the road.''

About 40 cities have photo surveillance systems to fight the problem. Retting expects another 10 to adopt them by year's end.

When the institute studied the results after a year in use, it reported a 40 percent drop in serious crashes.

''The problem with red-light running is that regardless of what the penalty is -- unless maybe it's the death penalty -- drivers don't perceive that there's any risk of getting caught,'' Retting said. ''It's a tricky and dangerous assignment for police officers.''

Patrol officers must be close enough to see the car enter the intersection against the light and to also see the light turn red. Officers then must be able to navigate safely through traffic to catch the offender.

While photo enforcement might seem a good idea, don't expect to see it anytime soon in Anchorage, deputy police chief Mark Mew said.

Nobody has discussed it seriously after photo radar, he said. The city used photo radar for a year to ticket speeders in school zones but killed the program in 1997.

A lawsuit also challenged whether the city could issue a ticket without an officer present.

The department, however, recognizes red-light running in Anchorage as a serious problem. It remains one of the chief complaints of drivers, police said.

Of the 16 people killed in red-light accidents in Alaska between 1992 and 1998, 11 were killed in Anchorage, the institute said.

The Anchorage Police Department started dedicating federal money in 1998 to an annual monthlong red-light enforcement detail in efforts to slow violators and highlight the issue. Police issued 837 citations in March and expect to continue next year.

The Anchorage Assembly doubled the fine for the offense to $200 that same year.

The institute has studied who runs red lights and has found they're distinguished only by an urge to speed. Violators cross age and gender lines but are three times more likely to have previous speeding convictions, Retting said.

Mew, the deputy police chief, agrees. He believes drivers run red lights in Anchorage for three reasons: They're in a hurry and don't like to wait; they go too fast for winter conditions and can't stop, and, ''frankly, we have some really inconsiderate drivers here,'' Mew said.

''They just don't care. They don't drive with any courtesy.''

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