The decision of which pedal to pound when the light changes from green to yellow is one that every driver faces, often on a daily basis. Hit the gas? Slam on the brake? Usually it's made in a fraction of a second, its roots obscure and tangled.
Of course, it's also among the most important calls a driver makes. Red light runners cause 260,000 accidents per year in the United States, a calculus that local towns have not escaped. That fact hit home most recently when 6-year-old Menlo Park resident Lisa Xavier was killed in an early afternoon hit-and-run accident in mid-November at the intersection of Bayfront Expressway and Willow Road.
While an array of factors influence driver behavior, Menlo Park is hoping that new red-light cameras will make people think twice before running reds. The city has installed the cameras to catch violators at four local intersections, including the one at which the car Lisa was riding in was struck. One and a half years and some 9,000 citations after the first of those cameras became operational, is the program working?
That will remain an open question, as the city has not established any criteria for evaluating the program. Even if the cameras' presence doesn't succeed in changing the behavior of drivers, it will still provide a windfall for the city of about $300,000 per year, if citations continue at current rates.
While Finance Director Carol Augustine said monthly fine payments have not dropped, there has been a substantial decline in the number of violations detected at the notorious Bayfront/Willow intersection. That number fell 27 percent from the period May through December 2008 to the same time period in 2009, according to statistics provided by Sgt. Sharon Kaufman.
Meanwhile, the frequency of accidents at the intersection has not changed, though the sample size is probably too small to lend much insight. There were 13 accidents at the intersection in the year prior to the installation of the camera, compared with 12 in the following year.
Sgt. Kaufman cautioned that people shouldn't necessarily read the decline in violations as an indicator that the system is working, saying that traffic volume may have fallen in tandem with the economy, among other factors. She uses a simpler and more immediate index: the number of major-injury or fatal accidents.
"Our hope was that by having red-light cameras (at the Bayfront/Willow intersection), that we would significantly reduce or eliminate altogether major-injury or fatality accidents that occur there due to red light violations," she said.
There has been about one such accident at the intersection "almost every year" before the cameras were installed, including the accident that killed Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Halberstam in 2007, according to Sgt. Kaufman.
Lisa Xavier's death represented the first at the intersection since the cameras' installation in May 2008. Police believe the responsible driver was racing another vehicle at the time of the crash.
"The driver was involved in an activity that already showed a blatant disregard for public safety," Sgt. Kaufman said. "Running the red light was somewhat of a secondary action."
The lone camera at the intersection did not catch the driver running the light, because it faces in the opposite direction, according to police spokeswoman Nicole Acker.
Some have cited the awkward configuration of the intersection as one cause of accidents. Because Bayfront Expressway is in Caltrans' jurisdiction, Menlo Park can't do much outside of lobbying that to modify the intersection.
In the big picture, changing behavior will require a societal shift, Sgt. Kaufman said. In the meantime, the city will continue to rake in fees from drivers who lay on the gas when the light turns, hoping that the threat of a fine will make them reconsider.