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Simple, cheap method nabs red-light runners

By JEAN HELLER

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 24, 2001


There aren't many people who do not know by now how Jessie and I feel about drivers who run red lights. They are selfish (in their view, their time is more important than others' lives) and they are foolish (in a wreck they cause, they could be hurt or killed, too, not to mention losing their driving privileges if they get caught too many times).

But, ah, there's the rub.

The part about getting caught.

One of the things that infuriates me and plenty of you out there who write in on this subject is that so few of these violators actually are nabbed.

Let's travel once more to that infamous intersection of 28th Street N and Roosevelt Boulevard. Hundreds of red-light runners gather there daily for conventions. They turn out, we think, to practice their violations until they hone them to perfection.

It's like the old circus trick of stuffing clowns into a Volkswagen -- how many vehicles can run a red light and get away with it? The record could go to Guinness. Perhaps it has already.

Disregard for lights at this intersection so infuriates me that I have changed my morning commute to avoid the place. The new route is longer, but the blood pressure stays normal. But last Thursday morning, I was distracted. Without thinking, I took the old route. I stopped for a red light eastbound on Roosevelt at 28th and counted the number of vehicles that started their turns from westbound Roosevelt onto southbound 28th Street after the light for me and my fellow eastbounders had turned green.

There was no special reason for me to take this count. I admit it is a form of self-torture, and I'm compulsive about it. It's the reason I started taking a different route to work.

Eleven.

I am not exaggerating.

Eleven vehicles started their left turns through the intersection after the light turned green for me.

I might have gone apoplectic (which is longhand for throwing a fit) had I not had an uplifting conversation less than 24 hours earlier with Cpl. Glenn Luben of the traffic division of the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office. Cpl. Luben has even less tolerance for red-light runners than Jessie and I.

What's better than having a comrade-in-chagrin is knowing a guy who is part of a team getting ready to really do something about red-light runners.

We have discussed in weeks past red-light cameras, which photograph the license plates of cars that run red lights so citations can be issued later. For many reasons, I am now convinced that such systems are not in our future.

While I still support them, there are many people more powerful and influential than we are who don't like the concept or the cost.

Luben showed me the alternative. It is stunningly simple, and, just as cool, it's cheap. Even better than simple and cheap, Pinellas County judges have signed off on the idea. If people are nabbed running red lights under this system, the judges say they will uphold the citation.

The system consists of one 60-watt white light bulb atop a mast arm or on a post next to an intersection and wired to go on when the traffic lights turn red. A police officer posted where he can see my car and the white light can tell if my front wheels cross the painted stop bar at the entrance to the intersection before or after the white light goes on.

If the light is on and my wheels cross that stop bar, I'm guilty of running the light.

Busted.

"A problem we have at an intersection like Roosevelt and 28th is that it's so big," Luben said. "If I'm going to charge you with running a red, I have to see you enter the intersection after the light has turned. To do that, I have to be off the road behind you, in order to see you and the light simultaneously. Then I have to chase you across the intersection against the red. It's too dangerous."

From its position on a mast arm or post, the white light would be visible from any direction. So deputies looking for lawbreakers can lurk anywhere.

"All I have to do is see your front wheels cross that stop bar while the white light's on," Luben said. "Unless you stop at that point, you're caught."

An instant way to dump $80 from my wallet and earn three points on my license.

The first two test systems will go in next month, though both of them will be in the north county, Luben said, one at Curlew and Alt. U.S. 19 and the other at U.S. 19 and Gulf-to-Bay.

"We'll use those to train people on, make sure they're working right, maybe have a test case or two go through the courts," Luben said. "Within a month after that, I would look for them to start showing up all over the county. There is a lot of U.S. 19 interest, at Sunset Point Road and at Drew, for example. But I'm going to push for the next spot to be at 28th and Roosevelt."

The problem with policing that intersection is that nobody has been willing to claim it. Pinellas Park says its boundary starts a few feet south of the intersection. St. Petersburg says its city limit is a few feet east.

"Fine," said Luben. "If nobody else wants it, I have no qualms about taking it."

To qualify for this new system, an intersection must have three attributes.

First, the pavement has to be configured so that the stop bar is clearly visible to the spotting officer. At Roosevelt and 28th, for example, it will be raised slightly and repainted to improve visibility.

Second, there has to be a place to put the white light so it is in the same line of sight as the stop bar.

And, third, there has to be a safe place for the spotting officer to pull off the road and watch.

"Of all the intersections in the county, only two out of every 10 qualify," Luben said. "But it's a start."

Each light can be installed and wired for about $100, Luben said. A total of $400 if you do all four directions. Contrast this with $175,000 per intersection for the camera system.

I'm certainly willing to take the cheaper route first and see how it goes. The object is to catch violators and stop the problem, not to spend as much money as we possibly can.

Over the next few months, watch for white-light systems coming to an intersection near you.

-- Dr. Delay can be reached by e-mail at docdelay@sptimes.com, by fax at (727) 893-8675 or by snail mail at 490 First Ave., S, St. Petersburg 33701.

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