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Last Updated: Monday, 11 October, 2004, 10:13 GMT 11:13 UK
Caught red handed
By Sean Coughlan
BBC News Online Magazine

Depending on your perspective it's mass law breaking, a cheeky little manoeuvre or an example of a society too selfish to wait. Jumping the lights is now a mass motoring offence.

Jumping red lights is becoming a frighteningly common occurrence - with the latest figures showing that traffic cameras in London are catching almost 10,000 drivers every month.

"It's incredibly dangerous - and we need to stop this trend. It's Russian roulette - you don't know what's coming the other way," says Edmund King of the RAC Foundation.

These figures from the Metropolitan Police, covering traffic light offences between April and August 2004, are likely to mean another rise in the national figures for drivers jumping lights.

"It's extremely dangerous and contributes to accidents resulting in death and injuries," says a police spokesperson.

"We wouldn't mind if there was a camera on every junction where this was a problem," says Mr King. And he says a more visible police presence would help deter motorists ready to take a chance.

Aggressive driving

While drivers might once have hurried through an amber light, it now seems they're taking an extra chance, and slipping through on a red light.

Another car drives through a red light in south London
It only takes a few hours driving or watching traffic lights on a main road to see how common a habit it has become. At some busy urban junctions almost every change of the lights will see someone making a dash across the red signal.

This isn't speeding through a changing light, but a deliberate scuttle through after the lights have turned red, with perhaps two cars taking the gamble that there will be enough space before traffic starts to run in the opposite direction.

Cyclists have long been accused of treating red lights as "advisory" rather than compulsory. But now cars appear to be adopting the same high-risk strategy.

The AA acknowledges a growing trend for jumping the lights. But its head of safety, Andrew Howard, wonders if we should be surprised if people are less willing to wait for the lights to change. Jumping the lights is a reflection of an aggressive, queue-jumping society, in which people have a low tolerance for waiting.

"We live in a world where taking your turn is no longer the norm. I don't see how this kind of culture can be switched off - or how it won't apply to the road."

He also says that drivers frustrated by congestion roads are more likely to feel under pressure to save a few seconds by "running a red". If the phasing of lights leaves the red showing for too long, he says drivers might begin to test whether they can push through.

'Calculated risk'

The biggest deterrent against running red lights - apart from the risk of crashing - has been the placing of cameras on traffic lights.

Traffic light sculpture
1927: First automatic traffic lights in UK
April to August 2004: 48,000 drivers caught running red lights in London
287 traffic light cameras in London
2002: 88,000 traffic light offences caught on camera across England and Wales (2001: 56,600)
In London, these are placed where there is evidence of a problem, defined as roads where there have been "two or more killed or seriously injured casualties caused by vehicles running the red light".

At present there are 287 "red-light cameras" in the capital - with plans for six more to be put in place in the next few weeks, in Croydon, Lewisham, Islington, Merton and two in Haringey.

The London Safety Camera Partnership says that it wants its cameras to reduce the number of people killed and seriously injured by 100 per year.

There are no definitive figures showing the extent of jumping red lights, as figures for offences only show those who are caught, but the AA's head of safety says it's his impression that more people are taking a "calculated risk".

The most recent Home Office figures for traffic light offences (for 2002) show a 57% year-on-year increase, but this is likely to reflect the growth in traffic cameras as much as a change in driving habits.

These annual figures showed a total of 88,400 red-light breakers caught on cameras across England and Wales.

And since the latest figures from London showed 48,000 offenders in five months in the capital alone - it might be expected that the next national figure will climb further.

Are we playing fast and loose with the lights? Add your comments using the form below.

I completely agree. In the 9 years I have been driving regularly the incidence of red light jumping has increased dramatically. No one is prepared to wait the one extra change of lights it takes to cross safely and seems to be a trend in life in general.
Dawn, UK

One measure that could be implemented to reduce frustration on the roads is legal left-turns on red when the road is clear. It works wonderfully well in the US (where they turn right, obviously).
Geraint, UK

I don't know about anywhere else but in London I think this is a result of the cynical manipulation of the phasing of the lights by the mayor and his cronies to prevent the free circulation of traffic.
David, U.K.

In Maidstone, this problem is becoming epidemic, particularly at pedestrian crossings. We can no longer rely on a red light or a "green man" to tell us when it is safe to cross.
Keith, England

Perhaps the reason poeple are taking such stupidly dangerous risks is the fact that the time period lights are green is shorter than ever before - part of the governments "secret war" on motorists. By shortening the time between changes more congestion is created and, to New Labour, this equates to putting people off motoring.
Simon, UK

I guess this is just a London problem, as I've never seen this "in the sticks". I remember once in London seeing a police van jump the lights, as it did not have its "blues & twos" on, I assume it was not on an emergency and therefore breaking the law itself.
Gary Lisseman, UK

I am a cyclist (who, incidentally, never goes through a red light) and I see cars, vans, even buses doing this on a regular basis. The problem seems to be that drivers no longer slow down when they see an amber but actually speed up.
Adam, London, UK

I regularly see drivers junping the lights - a favourite place is the Sunbury Cross roundabout at the beginning of the M3. This morning, at least four cars jumped the lights when they were red and there is no margin for error in the settings.
Richard Brown, UK

It seems to be a London thing. When driving in London, I see this sort if thing all of the time, with drivers seeming to be aggressive at you if you stop for an amber! Out of London, it doesn't seem to be a problem at all.
James, UK

Ironically, people jumping the lights often cause more congestion. This is especially true on roundabouts where the lights are supposed to ease the flow of cars around the junctions.
Brian, UK

This behaviour is in my view due to the increase in traffic lights. On my regular route there used to be two sets of traffic lights and the journey could take 10 minutes in total at night. Now the same route has seven sets of lights, with three of these in a 200-yard stretch of road. Approached them at the wrong time and you have to wait over 5 minutes to clear just three lights.
Jason Smith, UK

It's really bad in Leeds. But then, so are the timings on many of the traffic lights.
James, UK

I agree that drivers are chancing it on the red lights, but, and this isn't an attempt to divert the argument, I've lost count of the amount of times pedestrians have crossed on a crossing in front of me when their lights clearly show red. Some pause just long enough to scowl at me, before wandering off.
Alan , UK

I have seen an ever increasing amount of drivers in Nottingham running red lights, in my opinion it is a far bigger menace than speeding.
Gregg Stuart, United Kingdom

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