Vehicle traffic facing a steady red signal shall stop...and remain standing until a green indication is given.
-- Florida state statute 316.075, subsection III
They say childhood does not prepare us for adulthood. And as usual, they are wrong. Who, after all, can forget our earliest lesson in vehicular etiquette, the children's game called "Red Light, Green Light"? The premise was simple. One kid stood with his back turned and shouted, "Green light!" Everyone else scrambled forward until the kid whirled around and hollered,
"Red light!" at which time players wereto screech to an immediate, grass-stained halt.
Only there was always some schmuck who refused to stop at the red light. No, he (or, more rarely, she) would just barrel ahead a few extra steps, usually bumping some knock-kneed dweeb to the ground for good measure.
One might wonder what ever became of those belligerent chumps -- unless one lives in Miami, where the unrelenting violation of actual traffic signals puts to shame even the most callous playground tomfoolery. It doesn't take much more than a limbic system to discern that in this town, red lights are about as significant as presidential elections. Which is to say, everybody's pretty much aware of them. And pretty much aware they don't mean squat.
Just how bad has the Charge of the
Red Light Brigade become? To answer this pressing question, New Times commissioned a series of ultrascientific observations at different locations around the metropolitan area. A highly trained reporter/traffic analyst was enlisted, along with one Casio stopwatch, and one test vehicle, a semi-insured 1981 Toyota Corolla.
Survey Site #1
Observation post established at northeast corner of South Dixie Highway and SW 27th Avenue intersection. Twenty ensuing light changes, from 8:14 to 9:00 a.m. were recorded. Relevant data accumulated and tabulated:
Average number of cars running red light (per light change): 6.16
Average amount of time (in seconds) intersection illegally occupied (per light change): 6.2
Number of arrests/accidents/fatalities: One fender bender involving generic Japanese compact car and white Peugeot. Police not summoned. Drivers attempt to settle matter through verbal arbitration, until a pack of personal injury lawyers descends and impounds both vehicles to cover legal fees.
Fun fact: At 8:39 a.m., ten seconds after light has turned red, a white Cadillac Coupe de Ville enters intersection. Driver, a large, plum-faced man, is not allowed to turn left through cross traffic. Remains in midintersection until signal turns green, looking like a child relegated to the mush pot during an intense session of "Duck Duck Goose."
Survey Site #2
Observation post established on southeast corner at Ives Dairy Road and Biscayne Boulevard intersection. Fifteen ensuing light changes, from 8:13 to 8:51 a.m., were recorded. Relevant data accumulated and tabulated:
Average number of cars running red light (per light change): 4.94
Average amount of time (in seconds) intersection illegally occupied (per light change): 5.39
Number of arrests/accidents/fatalities: 0
Fun fact: If wind conditions are favorable, traffic accidents are audible from I-95.
Survey Site #3
Observation post established on northeast corner at Kendall Drive and SW 117th Avenue intersection. Seven light changes, from 4:51 to 5:09 p.m., were recorded. Relevant data accumulated and tabulated:
Average number of cars running red light (per light change): 3.1
Average amount of time (in seconds) intersection illegally occupied (per light change): 2.94
Number of arrests/accidents/fatalities: 0
Other phenomena observed: Proximity to Town and Country Shopping Center makes for a convenient trauma-spotting/lunch destination.
Survey in Motion (Phase I)
Traffic analyst drives test vehicle north on South Dixie Highway from Kendall Drive to downtown Miami during afternoon rush hour, obeying all pertinent traffic laws. Summary:
5:01 p.m.: Analyst proceeds at 35 mph, as per posted limit. Light at SW 62nd Street turns yellow. Observing Florida state statute 316.075, subsection II ("when a yellow signal appears vehicle traffic...shall not enter an intersection"), analyst stops just shy of pedestrian crosswalk. Chevy Cavalier behind test vehicle skids to a halt, swerving into center lane. Driver is corpulent, middle-age woman, accompanied by small, doglike animal. Analyst emerges from test vehicle, flashes official Texas driver's license at surrounding motorists and copies down Chevy's license plate number.
5:09 p.m.: Ambulance siren sounds behind analyst, who moves to nearest curb and slows (as per Florida statute 316.126). Silver Miata behind analyst zips across two lanes and follows emergency vehicle through a series of red lights and out of sight.
5:16 p.m.: Analyst sights large puddle in right-hand lane, three blocks north of McDonald Street, and slows. Yellow convertible whizzes past on left, mouthing the words, "Fuckin' wimp!"
5:24 p.m.: After slowing for yellow light at South Miami Avenue, analyst thinks better of stopping when rearview mirror reveals disturbing close-up of a man in a Fiat, wearing a look of death.
5:26 p.m.: Analyst pulls into New Times parking lot at Biscayne Boulevard and NE Third Street. (Total drive time: 25:07:38.)
Survey in Motion (Phase II)
Analyst travels same route as above, employing Miami Driving Rules. Summary:
5:03 p.m.: Analyst sails through yellow light at SW 58th Street.
5:14 p.m.: Then through red at SW 27th Avenue.
5:17 p.m.: At northbound entrance to I-95, two large, American-built vehicles block test car's path. Neither has attained Minimum Acceptable Speed (MAS) of 65 mph. Analyst sounds horn. Tailgates. Flashes headlights. Analyst finally passes on right and, as per Miami Driving Rules, makes obscene gestures toward the cars' elderly drivers.
5:19 p.m.: Analyst exits I-95 at SE Second Avenue in a right-turn-only lane, and thus is forced to burn rubber off the line after light turns green. Analyst zips through intersection, cutting in front of Chrysler LeBaron and its hapless driver.
5:21 p.m.: Analyst pulls test car into New Times parking lot. Checks drive time (18:04:27). Considers the seven minutes and three seconds saved through automotive elan. Takes a deep drag on unfiltered Lucky Strike. Exhales. Checks hair in rearview mirror. Revels in previously unnoticed resemblance to Michael Andretti.
With this exhaustive inquiry completed, armed with our alarming results, New Times felt obliged to confront Dade's gatekeepers of trafficular safety. That meant a call to Sheldon Pivnik.
Yes, Sheldon Pivnik.
Chief of the county's Traffic Signs and Signals Division, Pivnik is a man beset by demons others call misdemeanors: rolling stops, illegal U-turns, flagrant disregard for signage. And as one would expect, he delves straight to the heart of the red-light bugaboo. "People generally run lights because they're trying to make time," ventures Pivnik. "What they're doing, in essence, is extending their own green interval by using the other drivers' red interval. I don't think there is a true engineering solution. It's beyond our control. We have the same problem here at the end of our driveway. We have to tell visitors to our office complex, `Make sure you look both ways before you proceed on a green.' Even the fire department is real careful and they can pre-empt lights."
Pivnik says his department has conducted all kinds of timing studies and alternative lighting schemes in an attempt to ameliorate the problem. Back in 1971 the division even experimented with a "countdown" signal that displayed the number of seconds until a light turned red. (The demonstration was halted, Pivnik recalls, after a driver transformed the test site into a drag strip, zooming ahead to beat a light and causing an accident.)
"I'll be frank," Pivnik says with chilling frankness: "We are not unique. I've seen the same thing in Dallas and Boston. And those are just the cities I've been in recently."
But according to traffic statisticians, Dade drivers are unique, at least in their ghoulish tendency to transform lickety split into lickety splat. Of major metropolitan areas, Miami ranks among the top five on the insurance industry's actuarial ledger -- behind perennial powerhouses New York and Los Angeles -- with a grand total of 93,674 accidents in 1990. The National Safety Council's "Traffic Facts 1990" also lists the city of Miami as number one in fatalities in a survey of 26 American municipalities.
The grim scoresheet comes as no surprise to Ken Durce, head traffic operations engineer for Dade's Department of Transportation. "It's frightening," confesses Durce over the fluorescent hum that bathes his honeycombed corps of engineers. "I'm sometimes scared to load my family into the car and drive across town."
Durce attributes the local insouciance toward red lights in part to Miami's melting-pot character. "To be honest, we've got a lot of people here who are not familiar with North American driving habits," says the DOT engineer. "Add to that the tourist factor and the elderly population, and it's dynamite. We've tried to correct dangerous lights, but the accident patterns don't change."
Road engineers have struggled especially to keep pace with Dade's booming southwestern flank, expansion that has meant, for instance, that South Dixie Highway must accommodate up to 60,000 cars per day, when it was designed to handle fewer than 40,000. At the Marlin Road intersection in Cutler Ridge, engineers installed a green arrow to allow left-turn traffic a "protected phase." The measure had virtually no effect.
In accord with fellow engineers, Durce maintains that the onus of reforming lead-foot drivers lies with law enforcement, a view shared by Dade's beleaguered traffic units. "The chances of getting caught on a red-light violation are so slim most people don't think twice," concedes Lt. Bailey Green, head of Metro police's traffic unit. "You take our department and spread them out over sixteen-hour shifts across a county this big and you can see how thin we are." Cut from nearly 50 patrolling officers two decades ago to 17 today, the traffic squad makes up just one percent of the county police force's 1700 uniformed officers, compared to five to ten percent in other major cities. Green attributes the erosion of his staff to Dade's violent upswing in crime.
Metro's Sgt. Duane Dorn remembers a misty yesteryear when guys were guys, dolls were dolls, and traffic laws were obeyed like, well, laws. He says the decriminalization of traffic violations in 1976 put a major dent in the deterrent factor. "If you had a bald tire and a bad attitude, you could go to jail. Then word came down from the legislature that we could no longer make arrests or take licenses," Dorn fumes. "They made the system more lax for expediency's sake. Nowadays drivers know they can break the law and not even get a point for it [on their driving record]." Dorn cites his tenure in the Selective Traffic Enforcement Program (STEP) -- which cut accident rates by ten percent in 1980, its first and last year of existence -- as his proudest moment.
But for those like Dorn, who lament years of heedless red-light running, relief may be on the way. (That, or yet another foolhardy public-awareness program.) Harry Skinner, chief of the Federal Highway Administration's Traffic Control Division reports that Thomas Larson, secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation, has sounded a red alert over red lights. "He feels we may need a campaign to get people to stop at red lights, like the seat-belt effort," Skinner explains, itching to promote red-light transgressions to their rightful place within the pantheon of vehicular shame.
"I personally feel there's a relationship between compliance with one law and another. For instance, the continual violation of the 55-mile-per-hour law makes people less prone to stop completely at stop signs and lights, and it's more annoying to me than anyone else in the world, because I've worked with traffic devices all my life," says Skinner, whipping himself into a bureaucratic froth. "I'm very old. I was raised at a time when we got whacked if we didn't follow a rule. I don't think people get whacked any more."
Not, at least, if they can manage to avoid Miami at rush hour.
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