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Time To Stop

... whether it's cameras, private security officers or the police, something must be done so that when the traffic light turns amber, drivers step on the brake, not the accelerator.

Toronto Star editorial, August 28, 1998

Last month, Toronto used a demonstration red-light camera at Dufferin St. and St. Clair Ave. W. to snap 301 eastbound light runners over 110 hours. Toronto Mayor Mel Lastman wants Queen's Park to give cities the power to use cameras to photograph the licence plates of red-light runners, and send tickets to car owners.

Daniel Girard, Toronto Star, October 21, 1998

On November 20, 1998, a Toronto Star editorial, (after noticing that more than 600 red light runners had been ticketed during the previous four weeks), called upon Transport Minister Tony Clement to institute red light cameras. In September, a covert test site at Dufferin St. and St. Claire Avenue averaged 60 red light violations in a 24-hour period. After warning signs were posted, violations dropped by half. Conclusion? The minister could no longer afford to ignore “cameras as a cheap and effective solution.”

Everyone agrees that there are too many accidents due to drivers accelerating across intersections whenever they see a yellow light. The question is what to do about it. There has been growing interest in a technical fix: intersection cameras photographing runners and $210 fines in owners’ mail.

Leaving aside issues of privacy, whether the owner was driving and the problem of sorting ‘straight through’ from right or left turning vehicles, intersection cameras are not the answer to the problem. For more than twenty years, I worked as a traffic technician in Toronto and small-town Ontario. During this period, I observed a steady rise in the number of drivers running red lights.

Contrary to the rhetoric of politicians and policemen, this is not due to an increase in the number of irresponsible drivers, or any other problem that can be fixed by surveillance or larger fines. The culprit is an innovation in traffic control systems legislated into practice more than two decades ago – the all-red interval between the end of the yellow signal and the beginning of a green signal for opposing traffic.

Before all-red intervals became ‘the last word in safety’, yellow signals meant STOP! Drivers respected this because they knew that, as soon as their signal turned red, opposing traffic would see a green light.

As soon as all-red intervals were adapted, yellow signals came to mean ‘go like hell’ – a plausible stratagem because opposing traffic would not start up right away.

The ensuing increase in intersection accidents is due to the fact that the end of all-red intervals is not immediately obvious. The driving community took years to assimilate the ensuing opportunity to behave badly. This process appears to have been completed. Yellow signals have become cues to accelerate. All-red intervals have taken their place as a signal to yield the right-of-way.

Unfortunately, there is an occasionally fatal difference. All-red intervals (usually 2 or 3 seconds) do not indicate when opposing drivers have been given the green light. Red signals simply remain red until they turn green, 30 or more seconds later.

In short, legislators and engineers failed to consider the psychological consequences of all-red intervals: Drivers have been enticed into believing that there is a window wherein they can safely run red lights.

We will not repair this blunder with increased enforcement and technological fixes – no matter how much revenue is collected at a few intersections equipped with "gotcha" cameras.