Typing a short text message or glancing in the mirror to adjust makeup often sends drivers sailing through red lights, a new analysis has found.
Researchers with the National Coalition for Safer Roads and FocusDriven found that out of the 5,808 drivers who ran red lights in videos they examined, 12 percent -- or 704 drivers -- were driving while distracted. On a national scale, experts projected that 7.3 million drivers blazed through red lights because they were distracted in 2012.
"No longer are vehicles used for transportation. They're used for down time. And there is no down time when you're in a vehicle," said Melissa Wandall, president of the National Coalition for Safer Roads. "These laws are not suggestions. They're safety laws so we can get home safe at the end of the day."
Distraction-induced red-light violations pile up in the Washington area, too. The study projected that 14,224 drivers ran red lights while driving distracted in the District in 2012; 136,416 did so in Maryland; and 189,028 did in Virginia.
Researchers viewed camera videos from 19 communities across the U.S. that showed drivers as they zoomed through intersections with a red light. Of the drivers who were distracted in those videos, 39.3 percent were talking on their phones, and 43.2 percent were "looking away" -- which includes reading or sending texts, the study said. An additional 17.5 percent were smoking, drinking, eating, putting on makeup, reading or had their eyes closed.
"These people look like they don't even know there's a light there," said Wandall, whose husband was killed when a driver ran a red light in 2003. "It's scary to see what people are doing in their vehicles."
The new study is a "wake-up call" for D.C. drivers, who racked up 91,550 red-light camera tickets in the last fiscal year, netting the District nearly $13 million in revenue, said AAA Mid-Atlantic's John Townsend.
Local officials have been trying to warn people not to drive while distracted. A recent survey of Interstate 95 drivers in Virginia found that nearly half of regular commuters on the highway use their phones behind the wheel.