Tri-State drivers playing red light roulette

June 09, 1997


Staff Writer

The traffic light just turned red on Dual Highway, but that didn't seem to matter to the driver who raced through the intersection at Robinwood Drive one recent afternoon.

Another car followed closely behind, apparently ignoring the red light that was by then almost a second old.

"I'm amazed I don't see a wreck out here every day," said Mark Karcher, branch manager of Home Federal Savings Bank on Dual Highway, whose office faces the busy intersection.

Similar scenes play themselves out many times each day in the Tri-State area, where motorists drive through red lights and seemingly disregard the potential injury they could cause to themselves and others.


"I've noticed a heck of lot more of it in the past couple of years," Karcher said.

During one hour at the intersection of Baltimore Street and Locust Street, one of Hagerstown's most notorious locations for red-light running, at least six cars passed through red lights.

"People run it all the time," said Mary Reid, administrative assistant for Hospice of Washington County. In the 3 1/2 years she has worked at the Baltimore-Locust intersection, she has seen an increase in traffic and an increase in red-light running.

She also has seen numerous fender benders and other accidents.

"There's probably one at least every two months," Reid said.

In Hagerstown, traffic signal violations rank behind only speeding and failure to wear a seatbelt in frequency. Last year city police handed out 478 red light tickets and warnings, accounting for nearly 9 percent of the overall 5,346 citations and warnings the city handed out during the year.

Of the 1,140 accidents during the year, 117 of them - or 10.3 percent - were the result of red light violations, according to police statistics

"They're out there," Hagerstown Police Chief Dale Jones said of the red light violators.

Police say violators often are impatient motorists trying to eke out the very last fractions of a second of a traffic light's amber glow, only to pass through the light after it turned to red.

"They try to squeak in," said Waynesboro (Pa.) Police Chief Glenn Phenicie. "Sometimes they make it, sometimes they don't."

But police officials throughout the Tri-State area said enforcing red light violations isn't always easy because it is impossible to justify placing an officer at every trouble intersection.

They also point out that while running red lights is potentially dangerous, speeding and drinking while drunk are more common offenses that often result in more serious injury and death.

"It's not a major problem," said Martinsburg (W.Va.) Police Lt. Donnie Hayes.

In Maryland red-light running has become such a problem that the General Assembly passed legislation this year that will allow local governments to purchase automated equipment that would photograph the license tags of cars that run red lights. The owner of a vehicle in violation would then be mailed a fine.

But the high cost of the devices - about $50,000 each - likely will limit them to the metropolitan areas, where red light violations are more common, state officials said.

To combat the potential dangers of red-light abuse, some traffic lights are programmed so that all lanes at an intersection are briefly on red. But some drivers might wrongly see the delay as a guarantee that it is safe to run the light, said Hagerstown City Engineer Bruce Johnston.

"You can't make these intersections idiot-proof," Johnston said. "If somebody is going to run a red light, they are going to do it."

Mercersburg (Pa.) Police Chief Larry Thomas said the state's $92 fine, plus three points on a license, should be enough to discourage most drivers from running a red light. Besides, he added, running a red light saves a driver so little time; lights in his town complete a cycle from green to amber to red once every 60 seconds.

"If a minute is worth $92 to them, they can try it," he said.

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