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MATC Researchers Tackle Red Light Running

by Aaron Mack

Transportation engineering faculty and researchers from the University of Kansas, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Kansas State University are engaged in a collaborative effort to reduce the frequency of red light running (RLR) violations and improve the capabilities of law enforcement to deter violators. Three complementary projects are underway at intersections in Kansas and Nebraska, focusing on RLR enforcement, identification and countermeasures to reduce both intentional and accidental RLR.

Through a collaboration between the Kansas Department of Transportation and MATC, Drs. Eric Fitzsimmons and Steven Schrock of the University of Kansas (KU) are spearheading KU’s evaluation of a blue traffic light system in Lawrence and Overland Park, Kansas. The system focuses on enhancing enforcement of RLR violations. In this system, a simple blue light mounted on top of the traffic mast arm illuminates when either the through or protected left signal turns red. Law enforcement can spot the blue light from any angle, enabling them to monitor intersections from more ideal locations than in the downstream of the signal. This acts as a deterrent for red light runners, and is a potentially powerful tool for catching violators. Field data is being collected on the performance of the system at two treatment intersections and multiple control intersections in Kansas. The research team is currently implementing the blue traffic light system in two Iowa communities under a grant from the Iowa Highway Research Board. The data will provide evidence on whether the system deterred red light running, based on a before-and-after violation study. Dr. Fitzsimmons stated that the system will also enable researchers to collect previously unavailable RLR data, such as time into red and frequency of multiple-vehicle violations, i.e., the “platoon effect.”

Collaborating with MATC and the Nebraska Department of Roads, Dr. Anuj Sharma of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln is leading the evaluation of the “Smart” system in the city of Lincoln. This system uses cutting-edge Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) technology to provide valuable data on peak times and intersections for red light running. Knowing these RLR hotspots has a number of potential advantages. Law enforcement can use the information to direct additional resources to problem intersections, while the data could help City of Lincoln officials determine where additional countermeasures could potentially reduce red light running and save lives. Small enough to fit in a briefcase, the low-cost system uses a computer interface that can hook up to the city’s existing intersection traffic cameras. As a camera records the flow of traffic, the computer processes the images in search of RLR violations, recording data such as day of the week, time of day, and frequency. This information can then be analyzed statistically to obtain a wide range of desirable information. 

In another MATC project, KSU's Dr. Sunanda Dissanayake is evaluating a low-cost countermeasure devised to reduce accidental and distracted red light violations, which are the cause of thousands of intersection crashes and fatalities annually. By installing a relatively simple system, the researchers can make a traffic signal much more conspicuous to drivers who might not be paying attention or who suffer from vision impairment. The design consists of a backplate equipped with a reflective border that attaches directly to the signal head. Dissanayake’s team is installing retroreflective backplates at two intersections in the city of Manhattan, KS, and is working with the city of Topeka to install the system at select intersections there. A before-and-after study of red light violations will determine whether the system effectively reduces RLR.

The researchers expect to obtain results by January of 2014. The end goal is to provide cities with a number of low-cost options for reducing red light violations and crashes. The systems could also be found to complement each other, in which case a combination of systems could be explored. The evaluation will also provide valuable data on the efficacy of different approaches to RLR deterrence and reduction, providing guidance for future efforts in the field.