You’re running late—again. There’s a red light coming up, and you know it’s going to catch you, adding minutes to your trip. It seems as though you’ve hit every red light on your way through town and you’re pretty sure you’re going to sit at everyone left in front of you.
What can it hurt to run a red light…just this one time?
Unfortunately, running a red light—even “just one time”—can have catastrophic consequences. Failing to yield to oncoming traffic, as required by a red light, significantly raises the potential for accidents. If you run a red light and get into a wreck, you are probably going to bear the legal responsibility for the injuries and property damage your actions caused.
Why People Run Red Lights
A large number—56 percent of drivers—admit to running red lights part of the time. Most of the time, drivers run a light that has just barely turned red. For example, drivers often run red lights when the car in front of them at an intersection took a bit too long to proceed through, or when they think they can “beat the yellow” and misjudge the timing.
The vast majority of people run red lights because they’re in a hurry or feeling impatient. In our hurried world, this is certainly understandable, but it also reflects a fundamental miscalculation of risk and reward. Is arriving at a destination one or two minutes later worth running a risk of a horrendous car accident and potentially dying? Usually, no. A few other people may run red lights because they simply don’t care about their own or others’ safety, or because they believe no one is watching and so, why not? These people are running risks for no reason at all, which is the height of irresponsibility.
Some people also run red lights because they simply cannot stop in time. In other words, their red light violations result from a separate violation: speeding. Speeding, obviously, reduces stopping time, which in turn leads to a higher risk of running a red. Speeding puts drivers in the difficult position of having to gauge whether it is better to slam on the breaks (which poses its own dangers) or to fly through the light hoping there’s no oncoming cross-traffic. Drivers must make this decision in the blink of an eye, and getting it wrong can result in catastrophe.
Occasionally, running a red light has nothing to do with a deliberate decision to ignore a traffic signal. Instead, some people run red lights, not by choice but because they fail to see the light, to begin with. This can happen when:
- Drivers “zone out” on long trips and lose situational awareness;
- Drivers pay attention to a distracting device like a smartphone or GPS rather than the road ahead;
- Drivers operating under the influence of alcohol or drugs; or
- The location or mode of operation of the red light makes it difficult for drivers to see or anticipate.
Regardless of a driver’s reasons (or lack thereof), running red lights creates enormous danger for the driver, his passengers, and any other vehicles on the road. Even when a driver has an arguably good reason to want to run a red light, such as in a life-or-death emergency, it’s important not to go barreling through an intersection if the light is red. The danger is simply too high of a catastrophic collision with crossing traffic. Even in the direst circumstances, drivers need to pay careful attention to their surroundings and follow the rules of the road as much as possible to ensure that they and others on the road arrive at their destination safely.
The Consequences of Running a Red Light
Running a red light often results from a split-second decision. Few drivers have the time or ability to calculate the probability of the life-altering consequences that the decision could involve.
- Running a red light is more likely to cause significant injury than other types of accidents. When you run a red light, you typically move through the intersection at a higher-than-average rate of speed. Unfortunately, so are drivers in the crossing traffic that has a green light. Additionally, red light running accidents usually result in a “t-bone” collision in which one car hits one side of the other. These “angular” collisions often cause severe injuries and fatalities to the occupants of the car hit on its side. That’s because the fronts and rears of most cars have significant protections that absorb the force of an accident. There are no such “crumple zones” on the sides of cars. Mere inches separate the driver and passengers from the source of a side impact, increasing the likelihood they’ll suffer terrible harm.
- Red light running accidents cause heavy fatalities. In 2015, around 60 people died each month from crashes involving a run red light. This amounts to more than 800 deaths per year or around two fatal accidents from running a red light per day across America. What’s more, over 200,000 people are injured each year in accidents involving red-light running.
- The law treats running a red light as “aggressive driving.” Aggressive driving reflects driver’s lack of care for the health and safety of his passengers and others on the road in the eyes of the law, subjecting the driver to a heightened risk of severe sanctions and even criminal penalties for causing an accident.
What Happens If You’re in an Accident After Running a Red Light?
As a driver, you have a duty of care not to drive in a way that could harm others on the road. If you breach that duty by causing an accident, you may bear legal liability for the resulting damages.
- Running a red light violates your duty of care to others on the road. If you run a red light, you run a high risk of being held legally responsible for a crash that results from that action. It probably will not matter if the light had “just barely turned red” or if you attempted to move through the intersection while traffic was in full swing: if you violated the law and failed to take care of other drivers on the road with you, you will probably be found at least partially at fault for the accident and the injuries it causes. This means several things.
- You and your insurance may be responsible for paying for damages. Anyone harmed by your actions in running a red light may seek to recover under your automobile liability policy. If the other driver carries personal injury protection insurance, that driver’s insurance will likely cover the first $10,000 of that driver’s medical bills and time lost at work. Beyond that, however, your insurance company may be responsible for paying those bills up to the limits of the policy. Beyond that, the liability may rest with you personally.
- You may lose your insurance. In some cases, after a serious accident—especially if you’ve been involved in more than one serious accident within about three years—your insurance company may choose not to cover you any longer. After a serious accident, your insurance premiums may increase significantly even if you’re able to keep your insurance.
- You may receive a traffic citation or be criminally prosecuted. At a minimum, it’s likely you will be cited for a moving violation if you run a red light and cause an accident. There is also a considerable chance you could face criminal charges, particularly if the accident left someone else seriously injured or resulted in fatalities. Depending upon your circumstances, this could lead to all kinds of other negative consequences, including loss of your driver’s license, loss of your employment, or even loss of your freedom.
No one considers these costs in the split second they choose to run a red light. That is why we mention them here. The costs of running red lights are real and potentially catastrophically large. Running a red light is just not worth the risk of those costs.
The Measures States Take to Decrease Red Light Running
In many states, lawmakers and administrative agencies have recognized the risks inherent in red-light-running and have taken steps to reduce them.
- Traffic cameras help prevent red light running. In intersections with traffic cameras, most notably those that are known to be monitored and where traffic violations result in tickets, red light running may decrease by as much as 67 percent. In some cases, however, it has been suggested that this strategy may not help significantly reduce accidents at traffic lights. Drivers worried about fines may be more likely to slam on their brakes or stop suddenly when they observe a yellow light, which can increase the incidence of rear-end collisions. Rear-end collisions, however, are often much less serious than accidents in the middle of an intersection, making the trade-off arguably worthwhile for many cities to install these cameras.
- Changed yellow light times have been used in an effort to reduce red light running. Yellow light length varies based on a number of factors. In general, a yellow light is intended to give drivers in the middle of an intersection time to move safely through the intersection before traffic starts flowing again. Drivers need adequate time to slow down, stop, and observe the flow of traffic around them. Yellow light length, however, does not substantially change the number of drivers who are likely to run red lights. Even when yellow light times increase, drivers quickly adapt to the change and will be just as likely to run the red light once they understand how long the light will be yellow.
Ultimately, it’s up to drivers to act responsibly. Lawmakers and administrative agencies may take steps to help reduce the number of accidents on the road, but if drivers aren’t on-board with those safety precautions, they may not have much of an impact.
Avoiding Red Light Accidents
While there are no guarantees of avoiding red light running accidents, there are steps drivers can take to decrease the odds of falling victim to red-light-running.
- Break the habit of running red lights. If you’re in the habit of speeding through intersections or accelerating when you see a yellow, you need to break that habit right away. Instead of looking at red lights as a frustrating restriction that gets in the way of your drive, remember that red lights are a necessary safety tool and that they help keep drivers safe while maintaining the flow of traffic.
- Travel at a reasonable rate of speed. If you’re in the habit of speeding, you may struggle to stop on time when you observe a yellow light, especially if it’s a short yellow. By respecting the rules of the road and driving at an appropriate speed, however, you’ll make it easier to stop your vehicle on time, which will help decrease the odds of a red light accident.
- Pause and wait before you move through an intersection after the light turns green. Count to three before you move your vehicle through the intersection, and take a look to make sure the intersection is clear before you proceed.
- Pay attention to the flow of traffic around you. Many drivers are tempted to take a quick look at their phones or to do other things inside their vehicle while waiting at a red light. Instead, pay attention to the flow of traffic. Are there drivers who seem to be behaving erratically? Is traffic heavy? If so, this may increase the odds that someone will run a red light.