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UDOT sees spike in crashes involving running of red lights

Some experts think duration of yellow signal may be a factor

Adam Lough, Orem traffic control supervisor, monitors traffic on Tuesday. Lough said  a traffic light must stay yellow between three and six seconds.
Adam Lough, Orem traffic control supervisor, monitors traffic on Tuesday. Lough said a traffic light must stay yellow between three and six seconds.
Stuart Johnson, Deseret News

Coming up to a stoplight, you see the light turn yellow. Do you (A) try to stop safely, (B) slam on the brakes, or (C) speed up to make the light even if it turns red?

The correct answer should be A, but more and more Utahns seem to be picking C.

Salt Lake City Police Sgt. Joe Cyr said if he goes to any intersection with a stoplight in his city, he will see someone running a red light within five to 10 minutes.

And while many assume there are no consequences for running red lights, Orem City Police Sgt. Theron Leany said there is a traffic accident every two hours in his city, and a majority of these are caused by red-light runners.

In fact, recent statistics from the Utah Department of Transportation show that the number of crashes involving drivers who disregarded traffic signals almost doubled from 2006 to 2007.

UDOT spokesman Adan Carillo said he believes the number spiked because of more accurate reporting. But in the past few months, there have been reports in Salt Lake City, West Valley City, Ogden, Cottonwood Heights, Magna and Marriott-Slaterville of serious injuries or deaths caused by a driver running a red light.

"People know you cannot run a red light," Cyr said. "People know you should not run a red light. Sometimes they make mistakes and poor decisions and they do. Sometimes they cost lives and horrible injuries. The emotional and psychological trauma when they have killed or maimed somebody is horrible."

Motorists, officers and engineers have different opinions about why people run red lights. Is it because they are in a hurry? Are they not paying attention? Or are they distracted by multitasking while driving?

A new thought for many is that the length of the yellow stoplight can either decrease or increase the amount of people who run red lights.

Most yellow lights in Utah last four seconds, said Adam Lough, Orem traffic control supervisor. Lough said each agency can determine the length of a yellow light as long as it is between three and six seconds — a federal law.

If a yellow light is too long, motorists will try to push the light and go through a red, Lough said. If it is too short, drivers who do not have enough time to stop may be forced to run the light, he said.

The speed limit and the size and incline of the intersection are the factors that help engineers determine the length of a yellow light, Lough said.

Dani Reesor, 22, has only lived in Utah for a few months but said yellow stoplights in Utah seem longer than in California, where she is from.

Reesor said she goes through yellow lights more here partly because of the time she has and partly because, unlike California, Utah does not have photo-enforced stoplights, something the Utah Legislature banned in 2002.

Orem transportation engineer Paul Goodrich said he thinks the Legislature should reconsider the ban.

"I think I've heard people joke about it before as green means go, red means stop and yellow means you better hurry to get through the intersection," Goodrich said. "The camera enforcement for red lights is a relatively good way to educate people that yellow does not mean hurry up. It means to slow down and stop if you have the ability to do that."

He said red-light running in Utah is probably about as common as in other states that forbid red-light camera enforcement.

Nationally, red-light runners cause about 218,000 crashes every year, said Mark Taylor, signal systems engineer for UDOT. People under 30 who are driving alone and are in a hurry run red lights most often, he said.

Taylor is also a technical adviser on a national advisory committee looking at making the length of yellow lights more uniform in all states and cities. He said he thinks the committee is "just about there" in creating a federal standard.

But for now, the length of the yellow lights in Utah will stay the same unless national research or the board indicates otherwise, he said.

"We are really exact on how we go about setting the yellow time," Taylor said of UDOT, which owns 1,100 of the 1,600 traffic lights in Utah. "We do that for consistency and for the safety of the motorist."

Taylor said UDOT is currently installing signs in Murray that warn of upcoming stoplights several feet beforehand.

He said education, engineering and enforcement can help prevent red-light running.

"It comes down to people being informed about the risk of running red lights and not being distracted," he said.

Leany said about 25 percent of the people who attend Orem's traffic school are there because they ran a red light.

Motorists often think that if they are past the stop line when the light is still yellow, it's OK to proceed, he said. But in reality, a driver must pass the crosswalk, 6 to 8 feet from the stop line, to legally go forward on a yellow.

It is also illegal to stop in the middle of the crosswalk, Leany said, so drivers should gauge whether they can clear the crosswalk — the beginning of the intersection — or stop before the stop line.

"The advice I give them in traffic school is if they think they have time to make it, they don't," Leany said. "If it's a matter of thought, just stop."