DULUTH - St. Louis County's top traffic expert calls running red lights "the most pressing traffic safety issue" within Duluth, Hermantown and Proctor.
To curb it, St. Louis County is adopting a red-light enforcement project this month intended to help authorities manage what has been a difficult violation to enforce.
"We want people to know we're going to be enforcing - no warning," St. Louis County traffic engineer Victor Lund said. "The goal is to get people to not run through red lights."
The county turned to new technology at 14 locations to help address the issue. Small blue indicator lights - which some say look like cameras - have been installed where either two county roads or a county road and city street intersect.
The blue lights are synchronized with the traffic signals so as to shine at the same time a signal turns red. The indicator light allows enforcement officers at the scene to determine if a driver ran a red light. The blue lights are mounted onto the back side of the poles, facing downstream, where a single patrol can monitor the blue light to visually confirm a stoplight infraction. Historically, monitoring for red-light infractions has required officers in two squad cars - one in front of the light and one downstream. The enforcement tactic was cumbersome, inefficient and difficult to prove in court, Lund explained.
The blue lights figure to help course correct what has been a statistically evident problem. Lund shared figures from the five-year period of 2009-13. There were 544 serious crashes at signalized intersections within the three aforementioned cities. Serious crashes are those resulting in fatalities, incapacitating injuries such as brain injuries or other serious injuries such as broken ribs. Of the total number of crashes, 37 percent were right-angle, or T-bone, crashes.
"By definition, a driver must run a red light to result in a right-angle crash at a traffic signal," Lund said.
The blue lights cost $2,800 per intersection, making it a relatively inexpensive enforcement tool. Federal highway safety funds covered 90 percent of the total cost, said a St. Louis County news release about the blue lights.
The red light enforcement program is part of the local Toward Zero Deaths initiative - a statewide effort that has resulted in a nearly 40 percent reduction in roadway fatalities in Minnesota since its inception in 2003.
The blue lights have already been affixed to the designated intersections, and next week officers with State Patrol, the St. Louis County Sheriff's Office and Duluth Police Department are meeting to learn about enforcement protocols using the blue lights.
Lund explained that much of the new enforcement model is based on experiences in Florida, which has been a national leader in the use of the blue-light technology.
"This is about safety," Lund said. "For people driving within city limits, their biggest risk for being seriously injured or killed in a traffic crash is at a traffic signal due to a person running a red light. Our goal is not to see more tickets issued, but rather to reinforce responsible and safe driving practices. It's not OK to run a red light."