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The Journal Gazette

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Thursday, January 12, 2017 10:01 pm

Red-light runners

Mid-morning, a few times a week, westbound motorists stopped for the traffic light at Main and Lafayette streets watch a northbound, dark-colored vehicle race through the red light. So far, no one has died.

But it could happen. In 2014, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, drivers running red lights contributed to accidents that killed 709 people and injured 126,000.

A driver pushing past the yellow and turning or driving through a red light is a common sight in Fort Wayne. Does it happen more often here than in other communities? That may be hard to prove, but – well, ask anybody who’s lived elsewhere and driven here for a while.

Yellow lights are set to provide a few seconds of warning to drivers nearing an intersection before the lights turn red, and there may be a moment that lights are red in all directions. Drivers who try to use those extra seconds to speed through intersections are playing a version of Russian roulette – with other people’s lives, as well as their own.

Last year, there were 14,374 traffic collisions in Allen County, including 32 fatal crashes with 36 fatalities. There were an additional 102 crashes involving pedestrians, four of them fatal, and 61 bicycle-vs.-vehicle incidents, with one fatality.

In 681 of the auto collisions, the primary cause was disregarding a traffic signal or traffic sign. In 2,402 crashes, police listed failure to yield the right of way as the main cause. As Lt. Tony Maze of the Fort Wayne Police Department explained, that category could also include other types of careless driving, but some are also related to disregarding traffic signals.

What are these people thinking?

"There are a lot of factors that come into it," said Maze, the department’s traffic coordinator.

"A lot of it’s inattention on the part of the driver," a factor worsened by the digital curse of distracted driving. "They’re on the phone, they’re texting, listening to music. Their mind is somewhere it isn’t supposed to be," he said.

"Some of it’s being in a hurry – they want to get there now," Maze added. During the holidays, it gets worse. "You’re caught in the turn lanes at Glenbrook mall, the driver in front of you turns on yellow, and you think, ‘if they’re going to go, I’m going to go,’ " he said.

Could police do more? Perhaps – but what would you have them stop doing in order to baby-sit intersections?

Traffic cameras could provide an answer. Research has confirmed that drivers stop at lights sooner when they know there’s a near certainty they’ll be photographed, ticketed and fined.

In 2001, former Sen. Tom Wyss led an effort to get the state to allow ticketing by camera. "We were never able to get it through," Wyss recalled Wednesday. Opponents cited privacy concerns and evidence that some communities in other states had improperly used cameras to increase ticket revenue.

Balanced against those concerns are the unsafe driving practices on display every day.

"It happens too often here, in the city," said Officer Mike Joyner, the Fort Wayne police spokesman. "It’s a very serious problem. I just think it happens too frequently."

He remembers when Officer Bradley Matteson was killed early one morning when a semitrailer blew through a red light at State and Coliseum boulevards and slammed into Matteson’s patrol car. That was more than 16 years ago.

Joyner, whose job doesn’t involve traffic patrol, nonetheless writes a ticket every time he sees a driver go through on red.