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Arizona has the nation's deadliest red-light runners, with three of the country's worst cities for fatal intersection crashes, according to a study of federal transportation data obtained by USA TODAY.
The report, to be released today by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, found that running red lights injures a quarter of a million people every year and kills at least 800 people.
The study, the largest ever conducted on red-light running, examined nearly 6,000 deadly red-light crashes from 1992 to 1998.
Researchers found that crashes at intersections increased 18 percent from 1992 to 1998, more than three times the rate of increase for all other fatal crashes.
Arizona had by far the worst death rate among states, with 6.5 fatalities for every 100,000 people.
That's nearly twice the rate of Nevada, Michigan and Texas, which followed on the list.
Arizona also had three of the four most dangerous cities. for red-light fatalities. Phoenix topped all urban areas, followed by Memphis, Mesa and Tucson.
Red-light running "is one of the most dangerous forms of aggressive driving," said Richard Retting, an analyst with the insurance institute.
"People are either ignoring lights or going too fast to stop in time." Inappropriate speed limits, poor road construction and driver impatience are also behind the surge, researchers say. "Anyone who drives knows red means stop," said the institute's Julie Rochman, of the institute said.
"It's simply aggressive behav- ior that's turning into a public hazard. Most serious red-light crashes, the study said, occurred in the evening, when congestion eased and motorists increased their speeds on open roads.
In addition, cities with speed limits of 45 mph and higher on surface streets faced more serious red-light -running accidents. "A lot of cities and new subdivisions have turned their surface streets into freeways," Retting said. "We're seeing roads that are six lanes across and have speed limits up to 50 miles an hour.
If a driver isn't paying attention, he can come up to a red light in a hurry." Speed, Retting said "is the deadly ingredient in a red-light crash," Retting said. "A side- impact collision at 45 miles an hour is going to be a lot more serious than one at 10 or 15 miles an hour." And red-light runners are not hardly the only ones at risk.
The study found that more than half the fatalities in red-light crashes were pedestrians or passengers and drivers of cars that were struck. The typical red-light runner, researchers found, was younger, less likely to use safety belts, had poorer driving records, and drove smaller and older vehicles than drivers who stopped for red lights.
Though red-light runners are equally male and female, they were more than three times as likely to have multiple speeding convictions on their driver records.
At a typical traffic signal, analysts found, a motorist runs a the light every 12 minutes. Sgt. Jeff Halstead has seen his share.
The Phoenix police officer says said that with an average of 330 days of sunshine a year, it's typically usually perfect driving weather.
That doesn't mean motorists drive perfectly, however. Just the oppo- site. "If we got more rain or inclement weather, maybe it would slow people down some, particularly at the in- tersections," Halstead said says. "As it is, they zip around the city at a pretty good clip."
And, according to the institute's study, Phoenix drivers run red lights at an unrivaled pace. The city has by far the nation's deadliest rate of fatal red- light running crashes, nearly five times the national average.
Arizona and other fast-growing Western states have been particularly stung by red light crashes "because their wide open roads are suddenly seeing schools, businesses, and busy in- tersections crop up," says said Phoenix traffic engineer Paul Wellstone. "The West has a reputation for being a drivers' paradise; a place you can lay on the ac- celerator and not worry about the traffic and dangers. That's changing now. Cities are struggling with getting their citizens to slow down."
Many urban areas are turning to red-light cameras to do just that. More than 40 cities have implemented red-light camera programs since 1995.
The cameras, installed atop traffic signals and street lamps, take pictures of every car that runs a red light.
Offending drivers are typically mailed a citation with a picture of the car, a de- scription of the violation, and a fee ranging from $50 to $300.
Most drivers are not issued points on their licenses. "It's a wonderful deterrent," said Tom Cady, assistant police chief of Oxnard, Calif. Oxnard, one of the nation's first cities to implement red-light cameras, has three cameras that are rotated among 10 intersections.
Cady said that since the city implemented the program in 1996, in- tersection crashes have dropped 40 percent. "People slow down at the lights now because they don't know if there is a camera up there or not," he said. "The best enforcement is the one that dis- courages someone from breaking the law. That's what a camera does."
In addition, experts say, red-light runners are less likely to fight a ticket based on photographic evidence issued from a camera. Stud ies found that more than 90 percent percent of motorists caught on camera pay their traffic fines, as opposed to about 65 percent issued by police officers. "A picture is compelling evidence," the institute's Rochman said.
"It's hard to argue against that. Once (cameras) become more common at intersections, we may see improvements. This is largely a behavioral problem. Improve that, and you're fixing the problem."
© Copyright 2000 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.