Clippings of a front-page Park Bugle article, one with a photo of Lydia Sorenson in winter by the intersection, the other showing the article's continuation on another page.

Red-Light Running Then — and Now?

Among those of us who think about safe streets, I think it’s fair to say there’s a consensus that red-light running has gotten worse in recent years. It makes me wish I had the ability to compare some point in the past to now and see if it’s true.

By coincidence, I’ve recently been reading every issue of the Park Bugle, the community newspaper of the northwest corner of St. Paul. The March 2001 issue carried a story that I remember reading at the time.

It told of Murray Junior High (now Murray Middle School) seventh grader Lydia Sorenson, who counted red-light runners for a science project. The location was the intersection of Como and Doswell avenues in northern St. Anthony Park in St. Paul; she counted for nine days in December 2000, from 3:15-3:45 and 5:15-5:45 p.m. She included only cars that entered the intersection on Como when the light was already red and the car did not turn.

She said that before the study, she had expected to see maybe 10 red-light runners total. But 14 drivers ran the light on the first day alone. There were 70 total in the nine hours she counted, which she extrapolated to 217 a month — 2,604 a year.

As Bugle writer Michelle Christianson put it, “She saw people stop and look for a break in traffic and then go through, sometimes narrowly missing cars from Doswell.” There was even a police car with its overhead lights off.

While waiting six minutes for her photo to be taken for the Bugle article, Sorenson saw another five cars go through on red. Those aren’t included in the count, since the photo was taken in February.

Como Avenue in St. Paul at Doswell, bus stopped at a red light, blue pickup truck facing, gold SUV driving away, parked cars.
Como Avenue at Doswell in January 2024, looking north. The street has been rebuilt and the traffic signals replaced since Sorenson’s study. Photo by the author.

Sorenson also recorded her estimates of the age and sex of the drivers. Before the project, she had predicted that younger people and women would be more likely to run the light. Her hypothesis was that women would be in more of a hurry because they had more places to be. But both of those predictions turned out to be incorrect. She saw only 14 young people (and five people she judged to be older than 50) run the light. The category she called middle-aged (ages 30 to 50) accounted for most of the lawbreakers, and men were twice as likely to run the light as women. (Her definition of “young” was 15 to 30.)

Overall, she counted 715 cars per day on average, and there were 32 red light cycles in each half hour. In the 2000-2001 Murray School science fair, Sorenson’s project took third in the human behavior category, and she went on to the regional competition. I wonder what she ended up doing for a career!

I plan to go back to the same intersection and replicate her study to see how it compares. The only question is whether I should do it soon or wait and do it at the same time of year (“around Christmas time”) as the original count.

Pat Thompson

About Pat Thompson

Pat Thompson is cochair of the St. Anthony Park Community Council's Transportation Committee, a member of Transition Town - All St. Anthony Park, and a gardener in public and private places. She is a member of the Climate Committee.