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Danger Zones Federal Grant To Help Drivers Learn Difference Between Green And Red

It’s almost a standing joke in Spokane: When the light turns green, count to 10, look both ways, then drive through the intersection.

Put another way, “There’s a high potential for a collision” around these parts because of drivers’ propensity for running red lights, said city police traffic Sgt. Anthony Giannetto.

Help, albeit in modest form, is on the way.

Spokane County is among 32 counties and cities nationwide that will receive federal money earmarked to discourage drivers from running red lights, the federal Transportation Department announced Tuesday.

The county gets $7,500 for radio ads, posters and a beefed-up patrol on the streets. Nationally, nearly $650,000 will be distributed to some of the most wayward communities. Spokane County’s was the smallest of the 32 grants.

Out of 8,903 accidents in Spokane County last year, 508 were caused by red-light violators - about 6 percent.

That’s up 1 percent from 1993, said sheriff’s Sgt. Jim Finke.

“Our drivers are not being very conscientious,” Finke said. “Instead of slowing down for yellow lights, they’re just punching it to get through.”

Nationwide, these crashes cost nearly $7 billion annually in medical bills, lost time at work, insurance rate increases and property damage, the Transportation Department estimated.

Separate cost estimates aren’t provided for the state of Washington, but the damage is daunting, authorities said.

In 1994, Spokane police wrote more than 2,600 tickets for red-light violations. Of course, countless other motorists simply weren’t caught.

“It’s not uncommon to sit at a red light and watch not just one, but two or three vehicles go through,” said Peggy Hodges, the county’s traffic safety coordinator.

The $7,500 goes to the Spokane County Traffic Safety Commission, and will be used to air radio ads and hang posters. The commission also will survey residents to see whether attitudes toward red lights change as the awareness program progresses.

The communities winning the grants - ranging from Columbia, S.C., to Jackson, Mich., from Lancaster, Pa., to Anchorage, Alaska - were chosen on the merits of the programs they have proposed. Many have serious traffic-accident problems, but they are not the only cities where motorists run red lights.

Transportation Secretary Federico Pena was emphatic in announcing the grants Tuesday at in Washington, D.C.

“People are in a hurry, they are stressed, they think they won’t be caught by the police,” he said.

“The light is red for a reason,” he thundered, his eyes stern. “Stop.”

The growing problem may reflect a general shift in society, said David Hensing, deputy director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

“People are more uptight these days, more inclined to speed. There’s less camaraderie, less politeness. And there is a changing mood of less patience,” Hensing said.

State and local law officers say they notice the same thing.

“Spokane drivers just do it - it’s kind of become a prevailing attitude,” said Sgt. Chris Powell of the Washington State Patrol.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo


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