Advance vs. the Red Runners

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Most everyone agrees red light running is dangerous, but people still choose to do it. Rather than risk the safety of our streets to the whim of individual drivers, why not make systemic changes to take that choice away?

Josh Huntsman
Posted on
September 6, 2018

When I was learning how to drive for the first time, my driving instructor, Mr. Dally, taught me about red light running.

“If you see the light turn yellow, you make a bet with fate,” he told me with more drama than one should reasonably expect from the driver’s education teacher. “If you commit to go through, you have to just go through and hope no one hits you from the side. If you commit to stopping, then you just have to stop and hope no one hits you from behind.”

As an adult, I probably won’t teach my own kids about the dilemma zone like this, but in many ways, Mr. Dally was right. John K. Cumming, M.D., the trauma surgeon for Hennepin County Medical Center in Minnesota, says running a red light means you are “betting more than you can afford to lose.”

“Few things will stop you faster in life than a crash because you ran a red light or were hit by a red light runner,” Cumming said. “Even low speed side impact crashes can be deadly.”  

There are tons of statistics that show how running a red light is a bad idea, like how red light running crashes killed more than 9,000 people in the last decade with an estimated 165,000 injuries occurring from red light runners annually. Perhaps the most damning statistic about red light running, though, comes from a 2010 study from the Traffic Safety Culture Index which states, “95 percent of drivers say running a red light is one of the most dangerous things a driver can do, but 56 percent admit to running red lights

There are numerous ways to try and reduce the number of red light running accidents that occur, with attempts to alter driver’s behavior being the most obvious. But in a world where people are willing to engage in behavior they know is dangerous or even deadly, perhaps the answer is to work so motorists don’t have to make a bet with fate at all.

The Advance Solution

The Wavetronix SmartSensor Advance helps solve the problem of red light runners in a couple of ways. First, it creates a dynamic estimated time of arrive for every vehicle at the approach and holds the green light for vehicles that might otherwise find themselves in the dilemma zone. Second, it looks for safe gap-out options, which prevents red light running and simultaneously improves the efficiency of the intersection.

Both results are based on Advance’s ability to dynamically monitor the speed and distance from the stop bar of every vehicle at the approach. This information is used to create an ETA for each vehicle that changes as each vehicle gets closer to the intersection.  If a vehicle is determined to be in danger of running a red light, a signal is sent to the controller to extend the green light phase to allow that vehicle to safely pass.

At the same time, SmartSensor Advance essentially follows every vehicle along the approach, so it can easily identify gaps in traffic sufficient to safely terminate the green phase. The more gap outs that occur, the fewer instances where vehicles find themselves in dilemma zones.

In both instances, the driver’s actions do little, if anything, to affect the outcome. Drivers can be fast and aggressive or slow and defensive – SmartSensor Advance is able to see them both and alter the phase of the light to accommodate them safely and efficiently.

Getting the Picture

An alternative philosophy to this approach is the desire to alter driver behavior so they are less likely to run red lights. At the forefront of this ideology is the red light enforcement camera. These devices use cameras and other sensors to see if vehicles run red lights. If a vehicle does run a red light, a photograph is taken of the vehicle. This photograph is then used as evidence against the driver and legal action is taken, most often in the form of a fine.

There are some serious issues presented with this enforcement philosophy. First, the cameras do little to prevent accidents in the first place. The idea is that, as drivers become familiar with the idea of red light cameras, they will be fearful of punishment and will, over time, correct their dangerous behavior.  

While individual data in some locations seem to point to this as happening, the larger picture is more complex. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reviewed hundreds of intersections in Texas, Florida and North Virginia and found that while intersections that had an unusually high amount of red light runners saw a reduction in right-angle crashes – around a 42 percent reduction – there was an increase in the total amount of crashes overall as people slamming on the brakes to avoid tickets would cause dangerous rear-end crashes. The 15 percent increase of these sorts of crashes, including in areas where red light running crashes weren’t as prominent, meant an overall increase in crashes.

Another big problem with red light enforcement cameras is the fact that they are increasingly unpopular and are quickly falling out of political favor, especially in the United States where more and more departments are scrapping the program thanks to popular and political pressure. Residents claim the program is nothing more than a new way to increase revenue – claims that have been found to be true in several instances where yellow times were reduced to increase the number of citations made. The Wall Street Journal reports that communities with red light camera programs have declined from a high of 540 in 2012 to fewer than 400 today.

Of course, red light cameras looked particularly beneficial when inductive loops or cameras were the default detection used for advance detection systems. These systems often promised big results that their drawbacks kept them from realizing. These systems were unable to create dynamic ETAs and so based their dilemma zone protection on best guesses that often fell apart, leaving an expensive, failed system with no reduction of red light runners to show for it.

The Big Gamble

In many ways, how a department chooses to address the red light running issue is just as much of a gamble as the driver in the dilemma zone deciding what do on a yellow light.  What are they willing to bet and lose to find a solution?

This question is one of the main reasons Wavetronix decided to develop SmartSensor Advance. Through accurate, reliable advance detection, red light running can be significantly reduced in a way that doesn’t cause alternate safety issues nor decrease efficiency. By using Digital Wave Radar designed for advance detection, technical problems are minimized. While there is no such thing as a miracle cure to completely erase red light running, SmartSensor Advance was created to make the cost as little as possible for a very high return.  

In one instance, Collier County, Florida was seeing dramatic increases in the number of aggressive drivers. Randy Ensell, project manager for Collier County Traffic Operations, says they were facing a new housing development project that would prove to be the biggest in the state.

“We have a lot of inbound traffic in the morning and a lot of outbound traffic in the afternoon,” says Ensell.  “We have drivers that are very aggressive.” These aggressive drivers threw traditional, loop-based detection out of whack because loop-based designs use a fixed speed to determine dilemma zones.  Because these drivers were more aggressive, detection zones based on old designs fell apart and were too costly to repair.

In this case, Collier County decided it was too much of a risk to try and slow down aggressive drivers on roadways that saw these dramatic increases of traffic and instead changed the infrastructure, by installing SmartSensor Advance as part of an advance detection system, to keep aggressive drivers from entering dangerous situations.

Likewise, Clark County, Washington uses SmartSensor Advance for advance detection as well as for data gathering and has seen a steady decrease in traffic fatalities in the county where systems are installed. In fact, Clark County was recognized in 2014 as a Target Zero award winner for safety at intersections

In Virginia, the Department of Transportation studied the effectiveness of SmartSensor Advance in reducing red light running and found that, in some cases, a reduction of up to 78 percent was achieved without an increase of rear-end collisions.

Another study, from the University of Massachusetts, pitted SmartSensor Advance against inductive loops to see how they fared in reducing red light running. The loop-based system saw a rate of one red light runner every 42.45 minutes, while the system using SmartSensor Advance saw a rate of one red light runner every 152.5 minutes.

In all of these cases, it’s important to note that the systems did not change driver behavior, it instead altered the infrastructure to keep drivers from having to make dangerous decisions.  

Of course, none of this is to say that drivers shouldn’t be expected to improve their driving skills and to be safe, but all it takes is one driver’s recklessness to ruin the lives of many others. As traffic industry professionals, we have a greater obligation. Yes, people need to be safe, they have that responsibility. We, in the industry, have the additional responsibility to make institutional, structural changes that make a difference. And when it comes to red light running, SmartSensor Advance is proven to be effective.