Red light, green light

On a recent comment, my friend Michael wrote:

Knowing what a red-light-camera hater you are, and given that San Francisco is the most dangerous city in California for pedestrians (and one of the worst in the country), how would you like the state to enforce lawful behavior? (I’m assuming you agree there is a problem.)

This is an easy one: get rid of pedestrians! No pedestrians = no pedestrian accidents. Cars for everyone! Also, nowhere in the blogger’s credo does it say that criticism has to be constructive.

In all seriousness, I do agree that there is a problem with pedestrian deaths, especially in San Francisco. I would like to see the police running continual pedestrian stings, as described at WalkSF. (Great site, by the way — I love some of the fake tickets there.) Looks like this is an on-going program. I love a good sting operation, based on 18 years of COPS watching. (“132 and Bush, I’ve got him at gunpoint.” “Ok, gunpoint, 132 and Bush. Covers code 3” ). Just an increased police ticket-writing presence in the mornings at major intersections could help things out. At $155-$371/ticket, the program can be self-supporting.

As I was thinking about Michael’s question on my drive home through the Mission district and the Castro (lots of pedestrian traffic), I got to thinking about what situations are (statistically) the most dangerous for pedestrians, in an attempt to answer the question “will red-light-running deterrents (camera or otherwise) significantly help reduce pedestrian deaths?” Are pedestrian-auto collisions caused by mostly by people racing yellow lights? Or, are pedestrians getting hit by inattentive right-or-left-turners on green lights? My gut told me inattentive drivers being careless on green lights was to blame, but I wanted to find more data. I found some interesting data here. There are quite a few interesting statistics in the report (watch out for S.F. native male Caucasian drivers age 40-64 on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays).

While 78% of vehicles involved in a fatal pedestrian accident this report were continuing straight through the intersection, what’s missing is whether the driver had a green or red signal… if that’s even known (which I doubt). What is known is that the primary cause was a driver’s failure to yield to a pedestrian. This is the citation I would expect with a driver proceeding through a green light and striking a pedestrian still in the crosswalk, though it is also likely that this is a “catch-all” cause for all of the above.

Pedestrians take note, the report shows that 94% of the fatalities happened at night or while raining — or both. Pedestrian visibility is a huge factor. While it’s probably due to driver inattentiveness (or, actually, not being extra-attentive during non-daylight hours or during bad weather), pedestrians should be extra vigilent. The “Collision Narratives” section at the bottom is a detailed but especially crushing overview of 36 pedestrian deaths in 1997 and 1998.

I’m sure there are more reports (and probably ones that are more recent and on-point) on the subject, but reading one of these reports was enough for me. I get the sense that drivers are speeding more and generally driving much more impatiently now than in previous decades, especially since pedestrians are probably acting as they always have.

More to the point of Michael’s original question: I really don’t think that red light cameras will curb pedestrian deaths. Let’s have a lot of enforcement the old-fashioned way with uniformed police officers writing tickets. It makes a strong statement about pedestrian safety, and gets drivers to slow down and pay more attention even (especially!) on green lights. If attended cameras help the conviction rate, then I’m all for that. I’m just not OK with how the justice system considers a robot’s testimony (and only the robot’s testimony) to be infallible. (Hmm — I wonder if Asimov’s laws are on the books in California yet…)

2 thoughts on “Red light, green light

  1. So the cop says “132 & Bush, Ive got him at gunpoint” The dispatcher says “OK, gunpoint cover is code 3″ Then the cop says something else, and the dispatcher replies, “OK, we’ll still send it code 3″ What did the officer say????

  2. Looks like the conversation went:

    “‘132 and Bush. I’ve got him at gunpoint.’
    Dispatcher: ‘At gunpoint, 132 and Bush, cover is code 3. 2514 transmit on Tac 2. OK, Still sign it code 3.’ This is from Portland and Tac 2 is a side net they use so they don’t tie up the main net. She’s still working at dispatch after all these years and says, ‘If I only had a nickel every time that thing played…'”

    (From, which has got to be the biggest collection of COPS info I’ve ever seen)

    Though according to this, the officer only said the first line.

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