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Lakeland’s Red Light System Shows The Importance Of A Split Second

Near miss event at North Crystal Lake Drive and U.S. 98 Bartow Road.

In response to an increasing number of collisions that have been caused by people running red lights, Lakeland is testing out a system at four major intersections.

Angelo Rao likely owes his life to a dropped employee badge.

While stopped at a red light at South Massachusetts Avenue and George Jenkins Boulevard in Lakeland, he dropped the badge under his front seat. While he leaned over to pick it up, the light changed to green.

Before he could start driving however, a heavy truck ran the red light -- and Rao said his car would have been hit if not for that split second.

“I really felt what people are going through with this sort of issue. It’s so real. Families are traumatized by red light running causes. It's quite scary,” said Rao.

As Manager of Traffic Operations and Parking Services for Lakeland, Rao has the ability to take the issue on -- and for the last month, the city has been testing a red light running detection program in hopes of preventing deadly collisions.

The Intersection Collision Avoidance Safety Program (iCASP) has sensors that measure the speed of a vehicle and its distance from the intersection. It then predicts whether the driver is going to run the red light or be clear of the intersection in time.

If someone tries to run a red light, the sensors alert the signal controller to extend an “all red phase'' -- where all directions of traffic see a red light. That period of time, typically two to four seconds, would force everyone approaching the intersection to stop, thereby avoiding a near miss or crash.

Rao says Lakeland has 174 intersections with traffic signals -- and red light runners are an issue at many of them.

“What we found is that in our previous studies at about anywhere from 40 to 50 such maneuvers happen every single day at one intersection,” said Rao. “That is, the motorist runs a red light after the green light has gone on.”

The four intersections where iCASP is being tested -- South Florida Avenue at Beacon Road; West Memorial Boulevard at Martin L. King Jr. Boulevard; East Memorial Boulevard and Massachusetts Avenue; and U.S. 98 South and North Crystal Lake Road -- have a high number of such incidents.

They also were picked because they already had red light cameras.

City of Lakeland
Chart showing crashes, including red light running ones, at four major intersections in Lakeland.

Rao said that statistics from the first month of use shows the system is already having a positive effect.

“Preliminary data shows that anywhere from 15 to maybe 20 to 25, depending on the day, interactions have occurred where we have delayed the green light,” said Rao.

And because it’s what Rao calls a “behind the scenes” safety measure, most people have not noticed it.

“It's not like you put a seatbelt on, you know that's going to save lives or have some other measure that's tangible and physically visible,” said Rao. “All you know is that you've been delayed a couple extra seconds on the intersection.”

While some people have responded positively to iCASP, Rao said others have commented that the system is “rewarding bad behavior, because all that they are doing is extending the all red, so (drivers) would run more red lights.”

“Of course, that's not the case, we're only trying to save lives by preventing the crash, or at the very minimum, the near miss,” said Rao. “At these particular sites, the red light running camera will issue a citation to this motorist.”

“We are not rewarding bad behavior at all. We're trying to save lives.”

Lakeland plans to install iCASP at another five to ten intersections. Rao also said that their partners, like the Florida Department of Transportation’s Bartow office, are watching the results carefully.

“As the data comes in, we're going to look at several other intersections around town that we can apply this to. So far, we haven't really picked any just yet,” said Rao. “We want to see what the data really means and how it supports the issue.”

“When we determine exactly the benefits, which we think are clear, then we'll be able to extend it throughout the city.”

But despite this system, Rao emphasized the need for people to drive carefully, be aware of their surroundings, and, like his case with his dropped employee badge and near collision, realize that “green means wait.”

“Just because you have a green light doesn't mean that it's safe to proceed all the time. Often it is, oftentimes it's not. So just be careful out there. We just want to be safe. That's the important part.”

Christina Loizou is a WUSF Rush Family/USF Zimmerman School Digital News intern for the fall of 2021, her second semester with WUSF.
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