Here’s What Can Happen When You Try to 'Beat' Traffic Lights

One of the first things we learn at a young age is the meaning behind red, yellow, and green—our traffic signal colors. Even though it’s ingrained in the memory of so many, it’s easy to take them for granted—and ignore the dangers of not doing what they instruct, like running red lights.

“Traffic lights are there for a purpose, and running them certainly adds to not just crashes, but fatalities, when they’re not obeyed as they’re supposed to be,” says Susan Sports, Public Information Officer, Georgia Department of Driver Services.

Running Traffic Lights in the U.S.

According to the National Highway Safety Traffic Administration, in 2016 more than 800 people were killed in crashes involving running traffic signals. An estimated 137,000 were injured as a result of not obeying traffic lights in the same year.

The most typical reason behind trying to beat traffic lights? “Distracted driving plays a part in that,” Sports says. “Georgia just recently passed a new hands-free law, which helps tremendously with drivers paying attention.”

Distracted driving comes in many forms: texting, eating, personal grooming, etc. No matter what is distracting you, it’s always incredibly dangerous.

Louisiana State Police Trooper Michael Reichardt said another common occurrence with drivers and traffic lights is that many drivers think they can “squeeze through” yellow lights. 

“If you’re going through the intersection and it turns yellow, that’s understandable,” he says. “If you have a reasonable time to stop before the light turns red—while it’s yellow—you should stop.”

The numbers are there to back up Reichardt as well. According to a 2017 survey from the AAA Foundation, 42.7% of people admitted to driving through a traffic light that had just turned red when they could have stopped safely. Of those people, 27.7% had done it more than once and 5% said they do it fairly often.

Those numbers increase when it comes to young drivers. Nearly 87% of drivers age 19–24 didn’t see red-light running as a threat. What’s more is that nearly 46% of these drivers admitted to running red lights even when there was enough time to stop. That’s nearly 3% higher than the average percentage of all ages combined. 

The Consequences of Running Traffic Lights

Accidents as a result of ran red lights aren’t just dangerous to the driver of the vehicle but to everyone around them. 

In 2014, more than half of the people killed in these type of accidents were pedestrians, bicyclists, and people in other vehicles who had been struck by red-light runners, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety

There’s also a significant expense that comes with these crashes. The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration reports that in total, crashes resulting from running red lights costs an estimated $14 billion per year. They also found that injuries are more likely to occur in these crashes, with a 45% occurrence rate compared to 30% for other types of crashes. 

Reichardt said even though the meaning of traffic light colors is extremely well known, drivers disobey them far too frequently.

“If you run a red light, the person that has the green light just automatically assumes the person at red will stop,” he says, noting that’s not always the case. Approximately 63% of Americans witness a red-light running incident more than once a week, and 1 in 3 Americans knows someone who has been injured or killed because of a red-light runner.

“We put a lot of faith in the other person’s ability to see the light and make a decision to stop at it,” Reichardt says. “It’s always better to err on the side of caution.”

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