Hector A Parayuelos / Flickr

A new study finds that one in 10 drivers do it.

If you stand at the corner of 50th Street and 7th Avenue, in the heart of Midtown Manhattan, you might notice something disturbing. At this heavily traveled intersection, swarming with people on foot, a lot of drivers aren’t obeying the most fundamental rule of the road: stopping when the light turns red.

When students from Hunter College conducted an observation of the traffic at 50th and 7th, they saw almost 30 percent of drivers running the red there. At the intersection of 88th Street and 4th Avenue in Brooklyn, another spot that the students studied, a staggering 37.3 percent of drivers kept cruising after the light had turned against them.

Those numbers come from a new study by two professors at Hunter, Peter Tuckel and William Milczarski. Overall, their students surveyed 50 randomly selected intersections in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan (Staten Island was excluded for logistical reasons). Of 4,379 drivers observed approaching lights that had already turned full red, 8.7 percent—nearly 1 in 10— ran the light. The majority of those who did not stop (4.4 percent of the total) drove straight through the light; others (2.6 percent) turned illegally on red; still others (1.7 percent) paused then continued through the red, treating it essentially as a stop sign. The observers only counted cars that entered the intersection after the light had already turned red.

A major cause of city deaths

According to the Federal Highway Administration, red-light running is the most common cause of urban crashes in the United States. More than half of those killed in such crashes (683 in 2012 alone) are not the ones running the light. And while about 93 percent of drivers say that running a red is “unacceptable,” a third report having done so in the previous month.

Milczarski says that he and his colleague Tuckel believe that the 8.7 percent figure for New York City is conservative, in part because the students recorded data for only the very first vehicle to come to a red light, leaving other vehicles on multilane streets unaccounted for.

The researchers were somewhat surprised to find that men and women were essentially equally likely to run reds. This is in contrast to a study of bike riders the two conducted in 2013, which showed that women riding bikes were far more likely to obey traffic regulations than men on two wheels.

The one qualification in the current study’s gender divide came from the cases where the students were not able to determine the sex of the driver, either because that person drove through the light at such speed, or because the vehicles had tinted windows (which are against New York’s traffic regulations). Of those undetermined drivers, more than 31 percent ran the red.

A few other findings:

  • Taxi drivers were the most likely class of motorist to run the red, with 14.5 percent of those observed offending.
  • The presence of a front-seat passenger didn’t affect the likelihood of blowing a red, although those with female front-seat passengers were more likely to stop than those with male passengers, regardless of the driver’s gender.
  • Monday was the worst day for red-light running. The researchers surmise this might reflect “the different emotional state of motorists at the start of the workweek (e.g., feelings of anxiety, impatience, etc).”
  • Streets with multiple travel lanes saw the most red-light running, perhaps because of higher speeds on wide thoroughfares, and perhaps because drivers felt less likely to be singled out for enforcement.

Red-light cameras would help … but people hate them

Milczarski and Tuckel call for increased education to change societal attitudes about the acceptability of the practice, although they acknowledge the results may be a while in coming. “It takes a while for norms to change,” says Milczarski. “Education is slow and sometimes ineffective.” Nevertheless, it can work over time, he says, citing the way seatbelt use has become mainstream over the past 30 years.

He and his colleague would also like to see more enforcement against red-light violators. Achieving that is another difficult problem. The densely populated streets of New York can be a dangerous place to pursue a driver who has run a red light or exceeded the speed limit. And disproportionate enforcement against people of color (with sometimes tragic consequences) is another reason to be wary of calling for traffic crackdowns by cops in patrol cars.

(Tony Webster / Flickr)

Red-light cameras, on the other hand, don’t discriminate based on the color of the driver’s skin. They are extremely common in European nations, but have met with stiff resistance in the U.S. New York was actually the first American city to start using red-light cameras, in the 1990s, and it has been fighting to expand and maintain the program ever since, most recently battling back a lawsuit over the cameras, which are still limited in number and location.

According to the city’s Department of Transportation [PDF], places where cameras were installed on city streets in 2013 saw a 33 percent decrease in overall injuries, and a 76 percent decrease in injuries to people on foot and on bicycle. These locations also registered dramatic drops in the number of violations issued over time.

But red-light and speed cameras are often condemned as revenue-grabbing devices—a controversy fueled by the way private companies operating the cameras under municipal contracts adjust yellow-light phases. GOP presidential candidate Marco Rubio weighed in on the issue recently, calling red-light cameras a “scam.”

Rubio was asked to comment because it turns out both he and his wife have been cited on numerous occasions for traffic violations, including running red lights and speeding. “I can tell you, being from Miami, where you drive everywhere, having four tickets in 17 years is not considered bad,” Rubio said.

Does anybody care? Probably not much. The New York Times story about the Rubio tickets has already been snarked at by many media outlets, including alternative newsweekly Miami New Times. The Rubios, after all, just drive the same way a lot of their fellow citizens do, even if they know they shouldn’t.

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