Deaths caused by motorists running red lights have risen to a 10-year high, a newly released study finds.
At least two people are killed this way every day in the U.S., according to the study of government data by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.
The study looked at fatalities from 2008 to 2017, the most recent year data are available. Drivers blowing through red lights killed 939 people in 2017. That’s an increase of 31 percent from a low in 2009, when 715 people were killed.
More than half of those killed were passengers or people riding in other vehicles. About 35 percent were the drivers who ran the red light. Pedestrian and cyclist deaths connected to red light running represented about 5% of total deaths.
The precise reason for the jump in fatalities isn’t clear. But AAA’s director of traffic safety advocacy and research, Jake Nelson, says distracted driving is likely a major contributor.
“Drivers distracted on their phones, pedestrians distracted when crossing intersections, are all reasonable contributing causes to what we see the data telling us,” Nelson told NPR. “But it’s not the only cause.”
For instance, AAA conducted a separate survey on red light running and found that about one-third of drivers who responded admitted to having sped through a red light in the past month, despite the majority of respondents saying red light running represents a serious safety concern.
“So that implies that they weren’t distracted,” Nelson said.
Another contributing factor is that more people are driving longer distances since 2008, according to AAA.
“Ten years ago, we were recovering from an economic recession, and people were driving a lot less. So, pure exposure to more driving is going to result in increased crashes of all kinds,” Nelson said. “As a result of that, there will be more people who die in crashes involving red-light-running drivers.”
AAA recommends putting red light cameras in areas that have a pattern of crashes, with local law enforcement officials directly supervising the cameras.
“Camera enforcement is a proven way to reduce red light running and save lives,” said Jessica Cicchino of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
AAA says drivers should monitor “stale” green lights — those that have been green a long time as you approach the intersection. They are more likely to turn yellow as you arrive at the intersection.
For pedestrians, making sure an intersection is clear before crossing is another thing that Nelson says might seem obvious.
“If you’re the first person at a red light waiting to cross an intersection when the light turns green, give yourself three seconds,” he said. “It could mean the difference between life and death.”
Pedestrians and cyclists should make eye contact with drivers, according to AAA, which also recommends not wearing headphones while commuting.
“If you’re going to cross an intersection, for just a moment please take your face out of your phone and take those earbuds out of your years,” Nelson said, “so you can protect yourself in the event that someone blows through a red light.”