by Cedric Hughes, Barrister & Solicitor with regular weekly contributions from Leslie McGuffin, LL.B.   

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Running Red Lights

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“Running Red Lights" is a great name for a rock band. It signifies youthful rebelliousness, wildness, freedom and unwillingness to play by the rules—life in the “fast lane." It’s all so a great name for a racehorse. Its significance on a police motor vehicle accident report, however, is very different, often linked as an “Apparent Contributing Factor" to a notation of severe injury or death. 

The law is set out in section 129 of the British Columbia Motor Vehicle Act: [paraphrased] When a red light alone is exhibited at an intersection, the driver of a vehicle approaching the intersection and facing the red light must cause the vehicle to stop and must not cause it to proceed until the traffic light permits the driver to do so. This rule is modified by permission, after stopping, to make a right turn while the light is still red, while yielding the right of way to all pedestrians and vehicles lawfully proceeding as directed by the light. Likewise, permission is given, after stopping, to make a left turn (while the light is still red) onto a one-way street. And the same conditions apply: left-turning drivers must yield the right of way to all pedestrians and vehicles lawfully proceeding as directed by the light.

Pedestrians are subject to the same rule at red light intersections: not to enter the roadway unless instructed to do so by a pedestrian traffic control signal. Pedestrians who are still crossing when the light changes to red must proceed to the sidewalk as quickly as possible, and have the right of way for that purpose over all vehicles.

The “red light" rule is clear and simple: stop before the intersection and don’t enter it until the light changes to green, except to turn right (or left onto a one-way street) when it is safe to do so. Drivers already in an intersection when the signal changes to red–when waiting to turn, for example–are not red light runners. The rule is broken when a driver, without stopping, enters and proceeds through the intersection after the light has turned red. The rule is also broken when a turn is made without first stopping. Failing to stop before turning is a particularly common form of the problem.

The risk of running a red light is high, some say as high as driving under the influence of alcohol in terms of probability of serious injury and death. Given this high risk, how commonly is it done? In 1999, a highly–publicized US. study found that while 98 percent of Americans agreed that running red lights is dangerous, over half admitted deliberately doing so.

According to U.S. Department of Transportation statistics, “drivers who run red lights are involved in 89,000 crashes a year, inflicting more than 80,000 injuries and nearly 1,000 deaths. In addition, from 1992 to 1998, the number of fatal crashes at intersections has increased by 16 percent, while all other types of fatal crashes have increased by only five percent." These statistics are relatively consistent throughout the U.S. and Canada. A noteworthy feature of these statistics is the degree to which injury is inflicted on others: more than half of the deaths are pedestrians and occupants in other vehicles who are hit by the red light runners.

Who runs red lights and why do they do it? Recent U.S. studies indicate that red light runners include drivers of all ages, economic groups and gender. The perpetrators are everyday people: professionals, blue-collar workers, unemployed, homemakers, parents, and young adults.

What is the cause (or causes) of such widespread willful disregard for the safety of others? Nearly half of the drivers surveyed who admitted to running red lights do so for no more complicated a reason than being in a hurry. As they approach a “green light" intersection, instead of reducing their speed to a level that will allow them to safely stop if the light changes to yellow before they arrive, many drivers maintain their speed or even speed up to "beat the light." A smaller group identified “frustration" as the reason why they ran red lights and, the irony of all ironies: they are frustrated by the discourtesy of other drivers, by other drivers not following the law, and by traffic congestion.

To stop drivers from running red lights, law-makers, law enforcement agencies and traffic safety advocates have undertaken a number of initiatives including: more aggressive police enforcement; the installation of intersection cameras; experimentation with traffic light timing (for example, increasing the timing of yellow lights at high speed intersections); and public education and awareness campaigns. These campaigns seek to motivate drivers to comply with traffic signals because it is the safe and responsible thing to do.

Cedric Hughes of Hughes and Company Law Corporation with contributions from Leslie McGuffin, LL.

Cedric Hughes

huges & company law corporation vancouver


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