Intersection Collisions – Time for a Fresh Approach?

sideswipe illustration FHWAIntersection collisions tend to be the ugliest, most prolific and deadliest of motor vehicle crash scenarios.  Statisticians and traffic safety experts could argue this point, but to the family of someone who died in a crosswalk, or while driving their car it’s a moot point as compared to the loss they’ve suffered.

Drivers can do their part by obeying speed limits, increasing their following distance, monitoring traffic signals more closely as they drive and by minimizing in-cabin distractions.  However, safety professionals have suggested two primary mechanisms to deal with intersections:  red-light cameras and roundabouts (aka “traffic circles”).  Each has its benefits and limitations or costs.

redlight cam pictureFirst, I’d like to address the popular use of red light camera devices.  A lot of stats have been thrown around the safety industry for the past decade.  Some argue that red light cameras significantly reduce the occurrence of the traditional intersection collision (i.e. T-bone collision where vehicle 1 runs into the midsection of vehicle 2 – typically on the driver’s side creating a fatal impact); therefore we should aggressively pursue the expansion of these systems.  Others argue that there’s been an increase of “rear end collisions” where vehicle 1 suddenly brakes to avoid running the red light (which has just changed from yellow) and vehicle 2 (which was following too closely) impacts vehicle 1 (sometimes pushing it into cross traffic); therefore, we shouldn’t expand the use of these systems.

In actuality, both of these conditions can exist simultaneously.  Federal studies suggest that, at camera controlled intersections, certain types of collisions decrease and others increase.  When examined clinically, the trade off (and more arguing) is that the decreases exceed the increases in terms of economic impact and lives saved.

Fueling this debate over the efficacy of the camera systems is the suspicion that government officials are mainly motivated to install the cameras as a revenue generation scheme rather than genuine motivation to improve public safety.  If both goals can be achieved without unethical means such as shortening the length of the yellow indication to “trap” more motorists in the intersection, then why not reap both benefits of safety and revenue?

Still, the headlines typically focus on the money collected (often millions of dollars per year) rather than the lives saved, but that’s controlled by the press, not the families affected by the installation.

Over the past two years there has been an economic downturn that has made many governments consider ways to increase revenue and many have been looking at automated enforcement programs.

A recent article published by (a tv station in St. Louis, Mo.) titled; “Jefferson County bans red light cameras, seeks safety alternatives” states:

“Another local community is doing away with red light cameras…It’s a backward trend from what we had been seeing over the years as city after city raced to install the cameras. The Missouri Department of Transportation recently studied 55 red light camera intersections and found an overall 14% increase in accidents.  A Jefferson County councilman says in fact, at the intersection of Richardson and Vogel Roads, accidents nearly quadrupled since the cameras were installed…councilman Bob Boyer says the cameras, which are meant to change drivers’ behavior, aren’t working as promised.  He points to statistics that red light runners in Arnold nearly doubled in the past five years. “Last year alone we had 9,400 people running red lights,” Boyer says.  “Anybody with common sense can see that if you have that many people running red lights, there’s obviously a safety issue there.” But instead of cameras, Boyer met with MODOT to make yellow lights run longer. “That showed that if you increase yellow light times by one second, you have a 40 percent reduction in red light running,” Boyer says.  He hopes other cities — and the state — will get on board.  Right now two bills to ban automated enforcement state-wide are currently working their way through the Missouri legislature.”

I haven’t seen or heard of similar studies where lengthening the duration of the yellow indication would cut red light running crashes, but it is an interesting idea.  The duration of the yellow (or “amber”) indication is set by the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), a Federal publication.  Some of the factors in determining the ‘amber time’ of traffic signals include the width of the road, number of lanes, whether the road is curved, and the prevailing speed of traffic through the intersection.

wb banner traf circleAnother mechanism to reduce fatalities is the roundabout or “traffic circle”.

This roadway design’s popularity has swung like a pendulum:  communities have spent a lot of money to remove roundabouts in the 1970’s and 1980’s, but many are now investing in restoring them or building new ones.

Honestly, I’m not convinced that one solution (roundabout versus intersection) is universally better or worse than the other.  I think that’s been the problem – people are eager to find a “solution” and apply it everywhere.  There are locations, based on traffic density, surrounding businesses, and other factors, which would probably be much better suited to one approach over the other.  I don’t claim to be a traffic expert or a roadway design engineer; however, there’s a lot of ground that can be covered by applying “common sense” and logic.

The “bottom line” for me is saving lives trumps annoying drivers.  Traffic safety results are everyone’s responsibility – not just governments, police departments, insurance carriers, corporations or big trucking companies.  Everyone who walks, rides a bike, drives a car to the office or something bigger for their job (i.e. a commercial, professional driver) has to do their own part.  At the same time, we need to keep on top of developments like camera systems, roundabouts and longer amber times on traffic signals in case these can cut crashes.

If you want to learn more about SafetyFirst and our approach to helping companies cut crashes, call us (1-888-603-6987) or check out our main web site (  We provide those blue and white “Safety is my goal” stickers for company vehicles.  The calls we process are turned into coaching sessions with training for affected drivers – not because they’re bad drivers, but because they (like us all) occasionally slip into bad habits and need a wake up call that’s less severe than a ticket or crash.  It’s simple, it’s proven effective, and it’s far less costly than the alternatives.

Here are some recent news articles on this topic (I’m not responsible for their content, yadda, yadda, blah, blah, legal stuff….)