How helpful are Newport News’ blue traffic lights?

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (WAVY) – Drive through some intersections in Newport News, and you won’t see just the normal red, yellow and green lights. Starting in June 2014, the city began adding a blue light to newly-built or updated traffic lights.

The new blue lights are visible from any direction, and they switch on when the light turns red. The purpose is to help police officers catch drivers running red lights. Without the blue lights, officers would have to face traffic lights to see when they turn red. So, they’d have to monitor traffic while lined up in the same direction of traffic, and to pull over a driver, they’d have to run the red light as well.

“Red light running is a big problem of major crashes, so the enforcement lights were suggested,” said Jacqueline Kassel, the city’s chief transportation engineer.

Photos: Blue lights in Newport News

But the numbers Kassel provided 10 On Your Side tell a different story. Over the past three years, running red lights caused an average of less than 10 percent of all vehicle crashes in Newport News. Of the 725 crashes between 2011 and 2014 that were attributed to running red lights, two were fatal.

Newport News spokesman Lou Thurston said the blue lights provide a safer way for officers to monitor traffic, since they can sit opposite the traffic flow and turn into traffic to pull an offender over, rather than running a red light behind the offender.

“We wanted to make sure that police could safely enforce red-light running at traffic signals,” Kassel said.

But is it common for Newport News officers to monitor intersections for drivers running red lights? 10 On Your Side asked Thurston.

“I wouldn’t say necessarily a big part. It depends on the situation of the day,” he said. “Are we having a lot of calls about other things? Has there been a complaint at a given traffic signal where people run red lights? We’re not sitting at red lights and letting other things fall by the wayside.”

In the six months after the blue lights went up at the intersection of Jefferson Avenue and Yorktown Road, officers did not issue any summonses for running red lights. They did not issue any over the same period in 2013, before the lights went up.

At Jefferson Avenue and Middle Ground Boulevard, officers issued two summonses in the six months after the blue lights went up. They issued the same number of summonses over the same period in 2013, before the blue lights went up.

“It’s a tool in the toolbox to make things a little easier,” Thurston said. “I couldn’t tell you how many [officers] are using it, but it’s so new.”

Regardless of whether officers are using them or not, the city plans to make blue lights part of every new traffic signal that goes up in the city.

The cost is low compared to another red light monitoring tool, called a PhotoSafe camera. Those take photos of drivers going through red lights, and according to Kassel, cost $4,912.06 per month per approach. Newport News has the cameras installed on two approaches at three intersections for a total monthly cost of $29,472.36.

Each blue light costs about $300 for materials and labor. The city has installed 41 of the lights at seven intersections, for a total cost of $12,300.

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