Oct 4, 2022 - Transit

Red-light runners keep evading Charlotte leaders’ priority list

Red light

A red light pauses the intersection of South Mint and West Palmer streets in Charlotte. Photo: Alexandria Sands/Axios

Sometimes they’re distracted. Other times, they’re taking a risk. Often, they do it because they can get away with it.

Regardless of the reason, drivers run red lights all the time in Charlotte.

  • For a brief period last year, city council considered re-installing red light cameras. But actual enforcement measures have quietly slipped off the priority list of local leadership, while investing in overall safer street networks has rocketed to the top.

What’s happening:CMPD claims it has given out more citations each year to drivers for running red lights. But it’s unclear whether citations are doing much to deter drivers’ behavior.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department has yet to fulfill a public records request for data on traffic stops. It also declined an interview, pointing Axios to a social media post instead. In a video, however, CMPD claims its red light citations have gone up since 2005. The department attributes the uptick to the growing population and targeted efforts on areas with high rates of serious and fatal collisions.

By the numbers: Data from other agencies also point to an upward trend. North Carolina State Highway Patrol’s totals for stop sign and stop light violations shot up in its Mecklenburg County district from 43 in 2019, to 92 in 2020, then 128 in 2021.

Data: North Carolina State Highway Patrol; Chart: Axios Visuals
  • So far, troopers have issued more than 170 violations in 2022.
  • A spokesperson couldn’t explain the trend. Statewide, numbers also jumped, from 3,122 in 2019 to 8,709 in 2021.

The big picture: Mecklenburg County Sheriff Garry McFadden attributes the problem to the widespread use of cell phones and social media. Charlotte City Council member Ed Driggs suggests COVID-19 could have also played a role.

  • “For a while, the roads were relatively empty,” Driggs says. “Traffic was light, and that gave rise to some bad behaviors.”

Yes, but: Just because more drivers are violating the law doesn’t mean they’re causing wrecks.

  • Crashes, where one driver was “disregarding a traffic signal” in Charlotte, have remained somewhat consistent over the past few years. There were 1,004 in 2019, 938 in 2020, and 1,128 in 2021, according to the North Carolina Department of Transportation.
Data: North Carolina Department of Transportation; Chart: Tory Lysik/Axios

Almost three years ago, we reported on red-light runners to find out what was being done then. The data was similar: CMPD analysts tracked relatively steady collision numbers from 2015 through November 2019.

  • The story is still much of the same, too. There are too few officers to sit at intersections, and now there are even more police vacancies. There’s also no real solution on the table. Today, Charlotte has its Strategic Mobility Plan, but it does little to deal with careless offenders and instead focuses on improving dangerous corridors.

What they’re saying: Driggs — the new chair of the Transportation, Planning and Development Committee — says the issue of drivers running red lights isn’t a near-term priority, although he recognizes it’s a problem in his affluent district because of a low police presence in south Charlotte.

  • “If you crack down on traffic violations, a lot of the people that you catch — people who don’t have licenses, or who don’t have insurance, or whose registration is out of date and so on — will be in those neighborhoods,” Driggs says. “That’s a separate challenge for them to try to avoid the appearance that they are actually trying to get minorities.”
  • The police force, which is about 300 officers short, is mostly patrolling in predominately Black communities with high rates of violent crime, Driggs says.

Flashback: Charlotte used to operate red light cameras, until a 2006 court ruling in North Carolina that required municipalities to share 90% of profits with the local board of education. It didn’t make financial sense for Charlotte to continue.

Around this time last year, council was reconsidering red light cameras as it penned its annual legislative agenda. They would ask representatives to revise the law to make operating red light cameras tenable, council member Braxton Winston says.

  • But ultimately the Intergovernmental Relations Committee opted to focus on other items it believed it could get done. The agenda still advocated for funding of transportation and mobility projects.
  • Planned improvements to street designs and pedestrian infrastructure in the Strategic Mobility Plan should reduce bad habits that the city’s current networks enable, Winston says.

What we’re watching: Transportation is expected to be a primary topic this council term. But with former mayor pro tem Julie Eislet no longer on council (she was a proponent for exploring red light cameras), it’s difficult to say whether anyone will carry on the torch of advocating for enforcement.

  • Winston has vocalized opposition to red light cameras in the past. Various studies challenge the technology’s effectiveness, and some evidence shows cameras contributes to an uptick in rear-end collisions as drivers slam on their breaks to avoid a ticket in the mail.
  • “I am looking for the most effective, ongoing and long-term equitable solutions that make our streets safer,” Winston says.

The other side: Sheriff McFadden says red light cameras are controversial because they cite the car owner, not the driver. He believes the key to stopping red-light runners is education.

  • “Show them how quick it could happen,” McFadden says, emphasizing the financial and life-threatening repercussions.

During fiscal year 2021, 719 of more than 8,500 traffic stops conducted by the sheriff’s office’s were for stop light or sign violations, according to its annual report. Most wrecks occur when drivers take a chance at a yellow and then accelerate when it turns red, McFadden says, or because drivers are distracted by their phones.

  • “When you are looking up, that light is green,” the sheriff says. “When you look down to text — ‘yes, I will be there in a minute’ — and you look up, that light has changed.”

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