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road sage

For most of my life, I've equated the practice of running red lights with the disintegration of society.

After a visit with relatives in Washington, my father would return saying, "In parts of D.C., they don't stop for red lights. It's too dangerous." A friend who grew up in Zimbabwe farmland reported that drivers there often did not stop for any lights or stop signs. The chances of being attacked were too great. You slowed down a bit and hoped no one else was doing the same thing.

These were apocryphal and exaggerated stories, but they served to illustrate the central theme: that running a red light was something so stupid that the only reason to do it would be a fear of a violent death at the hands of carjackers. That it could only be explained as the symptom of a culture on the brink of total collapse.

Yet if the round globules I call my eyes are to be believed, I'd say this long-standing conviction is in decline. Last week, I decided to keep a tally of the number of drivers I saw deliberately run red lights. Only intentional, willful red runners would qualify. I did not count drivers who were already midway through an intersection travelling at speeds at which it would be dangerous to stop.

No, I was looking for maniacs blowing through lights that had been red so long they'd turned crimson back when people were replacing their albums with CDs. I was looking for drivers so fixated on their text messaging that they didn't even lift their heads to check to see if the light was red. I was looking for the young driver pretending he was in The Fast and the Furious and the elderly driver who couldn't remember where he was. I did not have to look far.

In the space of a week, I saw four – that's right, four – drivers cruise through lights so red, rich and full they would score a 92-point rating in Wine Spectator magazine. There was nary a cop around to bust them. Some executed their transgression for the benefit of red light cameras. Their infamy will be preserved for posterity. They may have been forced to pay the $325 fine.

When you think about it, that's not too bad a penalty for committing a potentially lethal driving offence.

I mean, you now get a minimum six-month jail term for growing six or more marijuana plants. You can kill someone with your car. It's really hard to kill someone with six marijuana plants (you'd have to stuff all six of them down a person's throat).

Those found guilty of dangerous driving causing death face up to 14 years in prison. The Crown must prove a "marked departure" from normal driving practices.

So what actually happens when you run a red and kill someone? One driver in Ottawa got 90 days for running a red and killing a 19-year-old in 2008. He pleaded guilty to dangerous driving causing death and was allowed to serve his time on weekends. It was his first offence, the judge noted. But was it the first time he ever ran a red?

People make mistakes and the courts recognize the inherent risks associated with driving, risks that cannot be completely eliminated despite all best intentions and efforts. You can make a lethal mistake behind the wheel and you don't always go to jail for it. Nor should you necessarily. We accept this fact because we've all, at one time or another, messed up. We've all probably accidentally run a red.

But drivers today are exploiting this leeway. Driving has become so easy and automated that we've lost touch with reality. We run lights and send texts oblivious or unconcerned that we're operating a vehicle that can kill. These aren't mistakes we're seeing today. These are the acts of drivers who don't care or can't be bothered to follow the rules of the road. They're sloppy and careless.

Red light runners are just one of the most flagrant examples. They're not accidentally running red lights; they're routinely running them. You play how you practise. They've played the averages and made running red lights a part of their repertoire. They're in a hurry and they're going to put us, our loved ones, our kids in jeopardy.

For most of my life, I've equated the practice of running red lights with the disintegration of society.

Turns out, for most of my life, I've been right.

Follow Andrew Clark on Twitter: @aclarkcomedy

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