Who's Running Red Lights?

Motorists who run red lights in San Francisco are, by and large, highly educated, stressed-out men in a hurry who have a dozen excuses for running the light but almost never own up to making a mistake, a new behavioral survey shows.

The most interesting finding of the survey, which was conducted by a division of the San Francisco Department of Public Health, is the suggestion that the person being interviewed understands the problem of barreling through a red light but says it’s never his fault, says a city psychologist.

“The study suggests that people accurately see why others run red lights — they’re `in a hurry’ or `not paying attention,’ “said psychologist Stan Lipsitz, “But in terms of their own behavior, they make excuses, they deny responsibility.”

The informal random survey was conducted in the summer of people waiting in line at the San Francisco office of the state Department of Motor Vehicles. The San Francisco Emergency Medical Services Agency said yesterday that while its survey was more casual than scientific, it still found enough material from the 460 people interviewed to suggest that maybe the city should put officers on every intersection in town, 24 hours a day, or at least keep college-educated men out of cars.

Here’s what the survey found:

  • Twice as many men run red lights as women, although there are nearly as many female drivers as male drivers in San Francisco. But twice as many men “can accurately define running a red light.” (Entering an intersection on the yellow light is OK, police say. Entering it on a red is not.)
  • Most people think they won’t get caught running red lights, and so they keep on doing it.
  • Few drivers will actually admit they tried to beat the light. Most say they couldn’t stop or tried too late to stop.
  • More than half of the people who confessed to being chronic red-light runners had a college degree. (Less than 36 percent of San Francisco’s population has graduated from college.)

The survey by the medical services agency, the ambulance-running arm of the city health department, is part of a Federal Highway Administration campaign to warn drivers across the country of the seriousness of running red lights. The ambulance agency got a $30,000 federal grant to help with the survey.

In 1995, more than 41,000 people were killed in the United States because of traffic accidents, according to the city health department. More than 20 percent of those crashes were caused by drivers who ignored traffic signals.

For its part in the nationwide campaign, San Francisco is already cracking down on red-light running with the installation last year of three cameras at bad intersections around town.

The cameras — at Fifth and Howard streets, 19th and Holloway avenues, and Seventh and Mission streets — automatically take pictures of any car traveling faster than 15 mph that enters an intersection after the light has turned red. The private companies that operate the cameras develop the film and “zoom in on each frame,” said city traffic engineer Bond Yee, and then give the Police Department the car’s license plate number.

The picture also identifies the driver through the windshield. The police mail the car owner a ticket, Yee said, and if the registered owner wants to challenge the citation, he or she “has to come down to court and tell the judge, `It wasn’t me.'”

Yee said there are some loopholes in the system — “If the picture is not conclusive, or there’s glare, or if the front license plate is out of focus, then those are not mailed out.” And motorcycles go free — they have no front plates, and it is nearly impossible for a camera to accurately identify the face of a motorcyclist wearing a full-face helmet.

So far, there don’t seem to be any major complaints by those who have been ticketed — 442 citations were issued in November and 508 in December.

Deputy City Attorney Katharine Albright said her office consulted with the state Legislature to see if “it was possible that somebody would allege an invasion of privacy. It’s clear, however, that the privacy concern is balanced overwhelmingly by the compelling need to enforce red-light laws. Any time you have a law and hope to enforce it, you hope they’ll obey the law.”

Hope is one thing, getting people to obey is another.

“We say other people should live better lives, but we don’t necessarily do it ourselves,” Lipsitz, the psychologist, said.

“Then there’s the whole psychology of driving behavior and the meaning of cars. People see cars as extensions of themselves — their private selves, rather than their public selves. So they’re more likely to act out on the basis of aggressive impulses or fantasies than they would ordinarily do in their public behavior.”

And a San Francisco traffic cop with nearly three decades’ experience, a man who has the unique perspective of dealing with those impulses and fantasies at street level day after day, says the problem can be summed up this way:

“If they see the yellow, they step on the gas. What they should do is step on the brake. But they don’t.”

The San Francisco Chronicle

By Michael Taylor, Chronicle Staff Writer

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