Motorists Ignoring Red Lights

Published 5:00 pm Tuesday, June 4, 2013

FARMVILLE – A yellow light at traffic signals should wave a red flag.

There were 81 reportable motor vehicle accidents in Farmville last year. Many of them were the result of motorists acting as if a yellow light is an invitation into and through the red light “district” that is the space between the white lines painted to show vehicles where to stop, instead.

Stop and prevent a serious accident.

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“A large portion of our crashes, I think, you can attribute to people going through red lights,” Farmville Police Chief Doug Mooney said during an interview with The Herald.

The accidents occurred at intersections controlled by traffic signals, safety devices that should prevent, and are designed to prevent, crashes.

But the top accident sites in Farmville are all intersections with Main Street and the most accidents occurred at the intersection of South Main and Milnwood Road-for the second year in a row.

“There's still a pretty good number of people who, that light turns red and they're going through it,” Chief Mooney said.

A dangerous decision.

“You have a lot of traffic signals and a lot of cars coming and going,” Chief Mooney said of Main Street and its intersections. “Again, you can't just be going through there not paying attention. That's what it comes down to. And you can't be in too much of a hurry. You have to think 'safety.'”

Stopping for a red light seems so basic and running a red light the most obvious and preventable of mistakes.

“It is basic,” the police chief agreed, “and I tell you it happens to all of us. You get to a light and you're in a hurry and you think 'I can make it' but you can't make it and that's how these crashes happen.”

The police department has responded by increasing its focus on those intersections that do have traffic signals and they are making arrests for red light infractions.

“Some of the people we're getting-well all of them-we wait until the light turns red and then look at the stop bar (painted in the road) and anything that crosses after that is clearly in violation of the law and could be causing a potential crash,” Mooney said.

“We don't write close ones, is what I'm trying to stay,” he said of the department's red light ticket violation policy.

If a Farmville police officer writes a ticket for running a red light, that officer believes the case against the motorist is clearly obvious.

Most motorists, in fact, don't understand state law as it applies to yellow lights.

“By state code you can even get a ticket for running a yellow light,” the police chief said, surprising the reporter.

“You can't speed up to beat a light,” he explained. “If you have time to stop then you have to stop, by state code. If the light turns yellow and you floor it to try and get through it you're in violation of state law, you're disobeying the traffic signal.”

The Town of Farmville's traffic signals are intentionally accommodating, according to Chief Mooney, to help motorists avoid red light trespassing and the accidents such encroachment too often create.

“Our traffic lights are timed to give you plenty of time to stop and they're even timed to give, a lot of them are delayed green, a little bit delayed, to give you time for the intersection to clear,” he said, before lamenting, “but even with that we have people going through on a red light and getting hit.”

Of the “very busy” South Main/Milnwood intersection, which saw more than twice as many crashes as any other in town, Chief Mooney noted the traffic includes those slowing down or completely stopped to make turns into retail sites, in addition to making turns at the intersection, itself.

“There's lot of stuff going on that you really need to be paying attention to,” the police chief said.

To pay attention or not to pay attention.

That shouldn't be the question.

But it is.

Motorists can pay attention or pay a whole lot more. Those 81 accidents produced a damage total of more than $400,000.

Ironically, the total number of reportable crashes has been steadily declining by 10 since 2010. There were 101 that year, then 91 in 2011.

“The numbers continue to go down but you've also got to consider that these are reportable crashes, or more serious ones. So our serious crashes are going down,” said Chief Mooney.

The town doesn't have high speed limits and the department is serious about working to enforce motor vehicle laws.

“I think (the decline) is because in our town the speed limits are fairly low and I think people, due to enforcement or awareness, people aren't going as fast,” Chief Mooney said in an interview with The Herald.

But the crashes that do occur spring from the same DNA.

“Nonetheless, we still continue to have crashes in town and it is a result of inattention, for the most part, people not paying attention to traffic signals. Going through red lights, stop signs, maybe in too much of a hurry,” Chief Mooney continued.

Social media and communication technology also conspire to create very unsocial activity on the roads.

“I think…the advent of texting and things like that also bring up other dangers that people need to be aware of and be more careful of when they drive,” he said.

“You can look, when you're driving on Main Street or Third and you have a car beside you, you can look and see oftentimes somebody has a phone in their hands,” the police chief said, “and sometimes if appears they're either reading or sending a text, which is illegal, and that causes crashes.”

The result is offensive, rather than defensive, driving because people are turning their attention into a division problem.

“Yes, they are (dividing their attention). You need to educate people on causes these things, but you also have to follow it up…with enforcement,” he said.

Enforcement of the red light running requires two officers in two police vehicles but the department is embracing the challenge.

“We have been doing red light initiatives, where you need more than one officer to work one of our intersections if you're going to enforce the red light-one person to see a car go through and another car on the other side to safely pull that car over while the officer who's going to write the ticket, give him or her time to get up there and write the ticket,” the police chief elaborated. “So we have been doing that and unfortunately we have issued a pretty hefty number of tickets for people running red lights in town. So hopefully in doing this it's going to get more people aware that this is causing accidents, or traffic crashes.

“But we're also working trying to keep people from running these red lights due to enforcement,” he added, “the fear of being caught.”

Between the fears of being fined for a traffic violation, injured or killed-or killing someone else-the chief of police is hopeful that the running of red lights will slow to a jog, then a walk, and finally to a stop.

“They don't want to have a crash, number one, and number two, nobody wants to get a ticket for running a red light,” he said, “so just be aware.”

If a motorist enters an intersection when the light is red, and an officer sees that happen, that motorist is going to get ticket.

But state code argues for greater vigilance.

“You see it a lot-cars will speed up. By code you're supposed to be slowing down instead of speeding up,” Chief Mooney said of yellow light encounters in danger of turning red, the color of a rescue squad's flashing emergency lights.

It can be dangerous, of course, to slam on one's brakes at the last minute, he understands, if there is a vehicle behind you.

“That's why they (the town's traffic lights) stay yellow for a good period of time, to give you time to clear the intersection…It is bad to slam on your brakes…but there should be time so that you don't have to. When it turns (yellow) proceed on through if you can't safely stop,” he said. “If you can safely stop, don't speed up, just slow up and stop.”