Stop in the Name of Love

by Larkin Vonalt

It’s the Monday of Labor Day weekend. As we approach the intersection of Main and Fifth streets, the light, long yellow, turns red. We stop, but the car behind us in the adjacent lane guns it through the intersection. To our left, on Fifth Street,  is a City of Dayton Police Officer in his patrol car. We chuckle a bit, expecting the cop to pull out (he has the green after all) and pursue the scofflaw. To our consternation, the officer simply drives across the intersection at a leisurely pace and onwards to whatever non-pressing destination awaits him.

In the days that follow, I make several attempts to bring this incident to someone’s attention. Anyone. It is deeply disappointing that an officer of the law cares so little for the enforcement of those laws that he simply does not bother. I cannot find anyone who is interested. I leave messages at several different offices and not one single solitary representative of the Dayton Police Department bothers to return my call.

While the Dayton Police Department’s tendency to turn a blind eye towards traffic misdemeanors is worthy of a column in itself, just looking at the issue of red-light tickets in our fair city should be enough to make you pause. From 2003 (when red-light ticket cameras were installed in ten intersections around the city) until June 2011, 92,900 citations for failure to stop were issued. As of last summer, 46,124 remained unpaid, a staggering $3.9 million dollars worth. The city mulled the possibility of impounding vehicles that belonged to individuals who had racked up more than two traffic camera tickets. 53 percent of the local paper’s readership felt that was “too harsh.”

Typical were public comments like this one from “Loralee.” (Quoted here just as she wrote it, non sequiturs and mangled grammar intact.)

“these red light (and now speeding cameras)are causing more accidents then doing good.People are slamming on thier breaks inorder to not go through a red light causeing fender benders wasting police time with these minor traffic accidents. there is a camera just down the street from where I live so I see it all the time.We are already short staffed with police patroling the neighborhoods.Hate the idea! I think they have been watching too much reality tv! Parking wars????!!!! from Dayton by Loralee “

In Seattle, a reporter from the Post-Intelligencer was snagged violating a red light. He wrote a column about the experience (he had “rolled” the light, turning right on red) and attached a poll to his story, inviting readers to make known their feelings about the cameras. A woeful 52 percent opined that the cameras should be “removed completely,” 14 percent thought they could stay but they should have “much smaller” fines, and 8 percent were spread over a variety of non-favorable responses. Only 25 percent of those polled were in favour of increasing the number of red-light cameras. 1 in 4. You know, that’s  pretty shameful. What earthly reason could there be for not wanting a red light camera unless you make it a regular habit to plow through intersections? (There is a famous red-light camera photo of a guilty-looking platinum blond woman with her hand wrapped around the phallus of her passenger– no doubt she was, is and always will be vehemently opposed to cameras.)

The Seattle writer went on to say that now he stops at yellow lights. In Boston, we used to joke that the light turning yellow meant “speed up.” It’s not such a joke anymore, because the overriding selfish desire of drivers to “make the light” has made that quip a reality. And people die.

People like Barbara Ryan, 44 and her daughter, Joanna, 11, who were killed in Bethpage, NY when a tractor-trailer failed to stop at a red light. The truck driver was not drunk. People like Los Angeles Angels rookie pitcher, Nick Adenhart, who was killed in Riverside, CA when an intoxicated driver failed to stop at an intersection and drove his minivan into the baseball player’s car. An acquaintance of ours, the distinguished and very kind William Dwelly, who was out running errands on a Saturday morning in his hometown of Spartanburg, SC. A woman driving a truck was distracted and “missed the light.” She was not drunk. She was not charged. Bill was killed. The poor sap just trying to cross the street in the photo accompanying this piece. Journalist David Halberstam who was being driven to an interview by a student. The student (not drunk) was anxious to “make the light” and turned left in front of an oncoming car. Think for a minute of two-year-old Morgan Lee Pena, napping in her car seat as her mother drove her home from a play date. A harried businessman, not drunk,  trying to make a call to say he’d be late for a meeting missed a stop sign and smashed broadside into Morgan’s mother’s car. Little Morgan died of fatal head injuries. The man received two tickets and a fifty dollar fine.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)  classifies broadside (or t-bone) collisions as the most dangerous kind of car accident. While these collisions only account for approximately 29 percent of all automobile accidents, they make up 51 percent of all traffic fatalities. Look at it this way: more people are killed by being broadsided than are killed in every other kind of car accident put together.

There are a couple of reasons for this. First, cars are not engineered to absorb side-impact force. Though some now have side air-curtains, many still have very little in the way of shock-sustaining forces. Sport utility vehicles are very prone to rollover when hit from the side. The other reason has to do with the way our bodies are engineered. Our necks and backs and brains are built to withstand the motion that we think of as “whiplash,” a violent forward and backward motion. But it doesn’t work as well when the blow is from the side, resulting in head and brain injuries, skull fractures and broken necks.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving have been very successful in developing an enormous stigma for drinking-and-driving. They take credit for reducing “alcohol-related traffic deaths” since 1982 by nearly one-third. Their lobbying efforts have led to prison sentences for repeat offenders.  They were successful in reducing an actionable blood alcohol level from .12 to .10 to .08 percent. They spearheaded a constitutionally questionable program that allows law enforcement to establish “sobriety check points” where drivers could be stopped without any probable cause and examined as to their ingestion of alcohol.

A 120-pound woman with an average metabolism can reach a .08 BAC by consuming two six-ounce glasses of wine over a period of two hours, and in fact, people with BAC of .08 to .10 are involved in fewer significant car accidents than individuals with BAC of .01 to .03, which is what you can achieve with a single dose of cough syrup. Eventually the founder of MADD, Candi Lightner, was forced out of the organization by people she describes as “radical prohibitionists” and she herself has joined a DC-area liquor lobby.

“Driving while impaired” may be the only offense that can be prosecuted because a situation exists in which an actual crime might occur. It is a bit like prosecuting a hungry person in a grocery store because they might shoplift a loaf of bread.  I don’t think people should drive while impaired– whether they are impaired by fatigue, low blood sugar, prescription medication, cell phone use or the fact that they had a fight with their boss, kid or significant other. But there is absolutely no certainty that an individual getting into a car after having a glass of wine with dinner or a beer after work will cause any harm to any one.

Yet, the local gendarmes spend considerable effort and expense on questionable “sobriety checkpoints”  every holiday weekend of the year– and all the while allowing any number of drivers to blow through controlled intersections, putting themselves and dozens of others at terrible risk. If a driver makes it a habit to run red lights, how many times do you think that he’ll be able to do so without being involved in a serious accident? One time? Five times? Ten times?  Just counting the intersections where there are red-light cameras, drivers in Dayton have breached the red  light nearly a hundred thousand times in eight years.

Perhaps you’re not one of those people who pushes the yellow light, sliding through as it turns red. Maybe you’re a fine upstanding citizen in that regard. Or are you rolling those right-on-red “stops”?  The law is not that we merge, you know. It’s that we come to a full stop. We once saw a Dayton Regional Transit Authority bus nearly take out a guy that was walking his two dogs . He was crossing a side street, and the walk-light was in his favor, when the bus decided to move. He jumped back and the bus driver slammed on the brakes, but it was a very near thing. Last month one of my son’s classmates was knocked down and knocked out while standing on a corner. A woman in a Chevy Tahoe didn’t see him, didn’t look, and the impact tossed his body twenty feet.  You have to stop, a complete and utter stop.

Here’s the way to make people stop running red lights, blowing through stop signs, rolling around corners without slowing down and otherwise endangering everyone around them:

First offense is a thousand dollar fine.

Second offense is a thousand dollar fine and 3 day mandatory jail sentence.

Third offense is a thousand dollar fine, 7 days mandatory jail sentence, and license suspension until a Driver’s Education course is completed.

Fourth offense is a thousand dollar fine, 30 days mandatory jail sentence, license suspension, driver education and impound of car for six months.

If Dayton had been charging a thousand dollars on all those red-light citations, they could have collected (or at least  been owed) 97 million dollars. Wouldn’t you slow down and stop at the yellows if you knew there was the potential for those kinds of penalties?

Every morning my husband and son travel through 32 controlled intersections downtown on the way to school. My husband goes through all 32 again on his way  home. When school is over, we go through this slalom again. Everyday I worry that the law of averages is going to spell disaster for someone I love. Or someone you love. There’s nothing important enough to go through the red light at that intersection, the life you save may be your own.