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Don't block the box... or else?

Imagine this: A driver in his car approaches a traffic light in downtown Washington. The light is green, so the driver crosses into the intersection but can't make it all the way across before being forced to stop behind a line of other cars.

Photo by Richard Winchell on Flickr.

Before the driver can move through the intersection, the light changes to red. Now he or she is blocking cross traffic from moving through the intersection in the perpendicular direction.

Anyone who has ever driven, bicycled or walked around downtown Washington at rush hour knows that the scenario described above is replayed in real life thousands of times a day. Drivers routinely "block the box" by inching into a crowded intersection when they have a green light, and then staying there once their light turns red, blocking cross traffic.

The practice is tantamount to running a red light, and it is a major contributor to auto and bus gridlock downtown during rush hour.

But it doesn't have to be that way.

We already have red light cameras at multiple locations throughout the city. Why not roll out a hundred more downtown? Block a box? Snap! Picture taken, your ticket is in the mail. If ticketing were to become commonplace, it's logical that blocking the box would stop being such a widespread crime.

Any time someone suggests anything that reduces drivers' sense of entitlement, such as ticketing drivers who break the law, apologists come out of the woodwork to fight the proposal. But in this case, increased ticketing of drivers who block the box would serve to directly improve traffic flow.

Unlike cameras aimed at reducing speed or generating income, cameras aimed to primarily ticket box blockers would benefit all other drivers in the city by virtue of reducing congestion. Bus riders, cyclists and pedestrians would benefit as well, since they suffer as much from gridlock and blocked crosswalks as anyone.

Increased red light cameras downtown aimed at ticketing box blockers seems like it would benefit everyone, including the majority of drivers, without harming anyone except those who choose to break the law and make congestion worse. Why not do it?

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Dan Malouff is a transportation planner for Arlington and professor of geography at George Washington University, but blogs to express personal views. He has a degree in urban planning from the University of Colorado, and lives in NE DC. He runs BeyondDC and contributes to the Washington Post


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This is way more practical than my plan of having huge cranes on corner buildings that pick up box blockers and deposit them on the top of the building.

by Josh on Sep 8, 2010 3:20 pm • linkreport

Is there a way to program existing cameras to perform this function? Presumably red light cameras are already fairly well placed to perform this function.

Also, would it be your contention that red light cameras have decreased the incidence of drivers running red lights? I was under the impression that they work best as revenue generators. Why would the effect on box-blockers be any different?

by taylor.nmt on Sep 8, 2010 3:21 pm • linkreport

Taylor: For it to work as a deterrent, people would have to know that they will get a ticket for blocking the box. That most likely means additional signage.

by BeyondDC on Sep 8, 2010 3:25 pm • linkreport

This is for the purposes of generating revenue, right?

Because if it were a serious proposal seeking to actually alter driver behavior, it would call for using some of the existing traffic cops and meter maids to issues tickets - and points on the license - to drivers for this infraction.

And, of course, those same officers should be issuing similar tickets to pedestrians, cyclists, horse-drawn carriages, and hovercraft that they observe violating the law.

Of course, apologists then come out from the woodwork to oppose such a proposal because of the sense of entitlement that pedestrians and cyclists have about which traffic laws they should adhere to and which are for others to obey.

by Fritz on Sep 8, 2010 3:29 pm • linkreport

Taylor, unless you think that the fine for running a red light is too low, I dont see how generating revenue and deterring lawbreakers can't work together.

If you get hit with a 500$ fine, you're going to be much more careful next time.

In fact, I've read of many cities that have moved their cameras to other intersections because they did their job when first deployed, that is, people stopped running the light.

by JJJJJ on Sep 8, 2010 3:30 pm • linkreport

I disagree that blocking the box is the same as/equal to/tantamount to running a red light. It is not. People who are blocking the box generally went through a green light.

I do agree that if we want to stop blocking of the box, we need to ticket more. But please on a separate infraction, not the same as running a red light.

Blocking the box is a nuisance, running a red light is dangerous.

BTW: Can UPD also start enforcing the existing law that it's illegal to block pedestrian crossings *at any time*? No change of rules needed. Just enforcement of an existing rule.

by Jasper on Sep 8, 2010 3:39 pm • linkreport

While you're at it, ticket drivers stopped in the crosswalks too.

by Steve S on Sep 8, 2010 3:39 pm • linkreport

no need for cameras!!! there are several reasons that a driver at any hour could be the box during a red light like stopping to avoid jay walking pedestrians for example.

my solution: just put a traffic cops at the worst intersections and issue tickets. simple, easy, fair, and would earn money for the city.

by jon on Sep 8, 2010 3:48 pm • linkreport

Blocking the box IS the same as running a red light. If you are in the intersection when the light turns red, the law says you are running a red light. If you are observed doing this, you get the fine and the points for running a red light. This is not a matter of opinion -- read the law.

BTW -- reprogramming red light cameras to prevent blocking the box is a GREAT idea. As a pedestrian, I can recount numerous times when I was almost hit by someone who had blocked the box, and then changed lanes to try to get across the intersection.

Drivers need to be reprogrammed to drive safely -- causing financial pain is one way to accomplish that reprogramming.

by Marina Streznewski on Sep 8, 2010 3:50 pm • linkreport

Not all lights have red light cameras... better enforcement and deputizing DDOT employees would be the best way to deal with the situation.

by Adam L on Sep 8, 2010 3:55 pm • linkreport

I LOVE to drive, love cars--and I am all in favor of this. Because I also walk downtown frequently. Not blocking the box isn't brain surgery.

Fritz wrote: "Because if it were a serious proposal seeking to actually alter driver behavior, it would call for using some of the existing traffic cops and meter maids to issues tickets - and points on the license - to drivers for this infraction."

I routinely find myself driving slower on MacArthur Blvd NW because I know there are speed cameras there. It doesn't matter where the ticket comes from; if you know a certain action will get you a penalty, you're going to avoid that action.

Jasper wrote: "Blocking the box is a nuisance, running a red light is dangerous."

Actually, blocking is also dangerous--to pedestrians. Drivers who block the box incur the wrath and honking of all the drivers behind them, so they usually scoot up to block the crosswalk--often after people have started to walk across.

I do agree that a drive could end up blocking in order to avoid running over jaywalkers. But that's what blasting the horn is for.

by JB on Sep 8, 2010 3:59 pm • linkreport

Blocking isn't as dangerous to pedestrians as outright running the red is.

by Froggie on Sep 8, 2010 4:05 pm • linkreport

This would probably prove more effective than my current passive-aggressive, act like I'm going to walk into a box-blocker's vehicle and then, at the last second, divert from said collision, approach. Sometimes I stare at the driver, which I'm sure learns them good, real good.

by nick on Sep 8, 2010 4:09 pm • linkreport

AFAIK, red light cameras can't catch box-blockers. Red light cameras measure the speed of a car approaching the intersection, then issue a ticket if it's above a certain speed (it assumes that you can't go from, say, 45 mph to 0 in a split-second, but a human has to confirm every ticket before it's issued). Box-blockers generally cross into the intersection when the light is green, so the camera wouldn't be tripped in that case.

Could someone develop a technology to detect box-blockers? Probably. It might be difficult, though, since cars travel in many different directions in intersections, and it'd have to be able to detect a car going the wrong way while it's supposed to be stopped (blocking the box, I assume, is not a crime if you still have a green light).

by Tim on Sep 8, 2010 4:10 pm • linkreport

I experienced police enforcement of what I thought was blocking the box but may have been enforcing the law about keeping crosswalks clear, instead: last spring, for about a week, there were police along Connecticut Ave, NW, from Brandywine south to at least Van Ness, where I work. People were being flagged over for tickets, which was just adding to the gridlock. Ironically, when people were trying to merge over from the curb lane to get around the cars getting tickets, they would end up caught in the intersection.

by John on Sep 8, 2010 4:10 pm • linkreport

I find this interesting. Probably about 99% of motorists are responsible enough not to typically block the box. So they would be the biggest beneficiaries from something like this. And yet, the fear of accidentally or otherwise blocking the box and dealing with a huge fine is enough to freak people out enough to question it.

by Rob Pitingolo on Sep 8, 2010 4:10 pm • linkreport

It already works in this manner. Before I went to law school I got a "red light" ticket at the corner of Riggs/Missouri and North Capitol for precisely this issue. The lights at New Hampshire had gotten off the timing cycle and hence I got stuck in an intersection unintentionally. Sure enough...$25 ticket for "red light" running...when in fact I was simply stuck in traffic with nowhere to go.

by Redline SOS on Sep 8, 2010 4:13 pm • linkreport

Blocking the box is not the same as running a red light. Running a red light is when you either (1) drive through and intersection where the light is already red or (2) don't stop when you have a yellow light ahead of you provided you can stop safely.

Anyone who drives in downtown DC knows that it is unpredicatable as to whether the traffic in the block on the other side of the traffic light will come to a complete stop or not. I've seen situations (not uncommon) where someone starting from a dead stop at a red light turning green, still gets stuck in the intersection. And this doesn't happen because anyone was trying to 'beat the light', more likely because traffic was flowing nicely, but then some pedestrian or cyclist unpredicatably ran out in front of traffic and stop otherwise well flowing traffic in the middle of crossing the intersection.

You want to ensure the boxes don't get blocked? Put a cop out there and start ticketing the jay walkers who are jay walking and the cyclists who are running red lights. The biggest impediment to vehicular traffic running smoothly isn't vehicular traffic ... but instead those pedestrians and those cyclists that break the law by taking a right of way that isn't theirs to take.

by Lance on Sep 8, 2010 4:18 pm • linkreport

>just put a traffic cops at the worst intersections

That seems less practical. Presumably it would be cost-prohibitive to hire enough police officers to enforce on a widespread basis.

by BeyondDC on Sep 8, 2010 4:19 pm • linkreport

Lance, I challenge you to stand at the corner of K and 17th during any morning rush hour and make that statement with a straight face.

by BeyondDC on Sep 8, 2010 4:20 pm • linkreport

@ Tim That's not how the DC cameras work. They use induction loops in the pavement to sense cars entering the intersection after the light has turned red.

You're right, though, that the current technology won't work. If the car is already in the intersection when the light turns red, it won't trip the sensor, and no picture will be taken.

by jcm on Sep 8, 2010 4:20 pm • linkreport

It's impressive to me that Lance found a way to blame box blocking on bicyclists. That's some impressive mental gymnastics there.

by jcm on Sep 8, 2010 4:22 pm • linkreport

This is a bad proposal. Sorry. Plenty of people get stuck in the box because traffic that was moving, albeit slowly, suddenly comes to a dead stop part of the way across the intersection. If you want to have traffic cops issuing tickets to people who blatantly block the box by entering when they have no chance of getting through, fine. But don't delegate this to cameras.

by Nate on Sep 8, 2010 4:30 pm • linkreport

Signing/marking for "Don't Block the Box" can establish case-by-case regulations, but it can be a bit maintenance-intensive to keep the markings in good shape & ensure that signs remain visible.

One option may be to look into each jurisdiciton's laws as to how to treat intersection blocking at a statutory level...

Laws may need some modifications in various areas, particularly where a motorist is considered to have entered the intersection upon crossing the stop bar; or particularly for jurisdictions which don't explicitly define where one is considered to have entered the intersection. Of course, this plays into when one is considered to have run a red light.

Since I'm familiar with Maryland's transportation law & how it's enforced, I'll nitpick on that side:

First, §21-102 and §21-101 define the stopping point as at the stop bar, or if not provided at the crosswalk, or if not provided at the point where the lateral extensions of the cross street's curb line intersect with one's route (basically the edge of the cross-street).

Maryland does not have a law that formally requires motorists to be capable of exiting an intersection upon entering it. Some jurisdictions in Maryland enforce intersection blocking via §21-1003 (prohibits motorists from stopping in certain situations, such as on sidewalks or within intersections).

While a stretch, §21-603 could also potentially apply where a motorist creates a clear safety risk, as this law prohibits motorists from starting until the movement can be made with reasonable safety. I say this is a stretch as it's not quite intended for intersection blockages, nor am I aware of any officers whom have used this law for such a purpose.

However, §21-1003(a) includes an exemption for motorists stopping in order to avoid conflict with other traffic. §11-162 defines "Stop" and further reiterates that a vehicle may stop as necessary to avoid conflict with other traffic.

Discussions with courts indicate that neither §21-1003(a) nor §11-162 have ever been used as a defense, though some informal discussions with judges have found that it could be a valid case given the current law. Though in practice, most motorists either just pay the fine or take probation before judgement (PBJ = no points; reduced fine).

In short, what Maryland really needs is a law along the lines of:

"A motorist may not enter into an intersection unless capable of fully exiting the intersection within the same continuous movement."

by Bossi on Sep 8, 2010 4:38 pm • linkreport

@ Lance - Is a person a "jay-walker" even when they aren't "jay"-walking, in the same way a person is always an alcoholic sober or not?
...ticketing the jay walkers who are jay walking

by Bianchi on Sep 8, 2010 4:40 pm • linkreport

If you block the box in NYC you get a fine and points. This helps keep traffic moving there. Drivers in this town are incredibly self absorbed and have no concept of "great good". Place cops for two weeks straight and signs up on the corner of 17th and K and other trouble spots. you will generate a ton of revenue for the city and hopefully keep things moving in the process. Repeat once a quarter and this will no longer be a problem.

by Trevor on Sep 8, 2010 4:43 pm • linkreport

Yes, red light cameras do have a modest net economic benefit to society according to the Federal Highway Administration. The overall benefits were not as great as hoped because rear-end crashed almost offset the savings in right-angle crashes. Selective deployment of red light cameras can dramatically improve the results, though. The analysis does not include the benefit of the additional revenue.

The revenue question is really a red herring, used to distract from the fact that they punish illegal activity. Even if they are installed as a revenue producer, is that a bad thing if the side effect is increased safety? Would it be better to discourage activities that are beneficial to society (eg, earning income) instead of discouraging illegal activities (eg, speeding, running red lights)?

The problem with using red light cameras to enforce box blocking, as Tim suggested, is that they are not designed for that purpose. Programming a camera to catch a box-blockers is much more complex due to the variety of different traffic movements that could potentially trip such a camera.

New York has had some success with its Don't Block the Box campaign. It started with Rudy Giuliani, ordering increased enforcement with tickets of up to $500 + 2 points. The City also installed "Don't Block the Box" signs and painted hatching on intersections. More recently, the State has changed the offense from a moving violation to a non-moving violation. This eliminated the 2 points on the license and changed the $90 typical fine to $115, but also allowed the traffic enforcement division to send violations by mail instead of having to pull over drivers on the spot.

by Stanton Park on Sep 8, 2010 4:52 pm • linkreport

Interesting idea. I think the cameras have been successful when it comes to red lights or speeding and I wonder how they would do for this. It would certainly make driving less frustrating if cares were able to stay clear out of intersections when they shouldn't enter.

by Joe on Sep 8, 2010 5:04 pm • linkreport

I like this idea. I get stuck by box blockers all of the time and it drives nuts. I already like what the cameras are doing for red light expand it keep the traffic flowing!!

by DCdrain on Sep 8, 2010 5:08 pm • linkreport

Note that cameras do exist for intersection blockages, though I'm not aware of any in actual use. The ones I'm familiar with use video detection (as opposed to radar-, laser-, or loop-based cameras in predominant use). The operator sets zones within the camera's field of view of the intersection, the camera compares the "no cars" base reading for each zone with the current reading to determine if it's occupied, and anything occupied for a continued duration may prompt a video recording or a series of photos -- in either case further reviewed manually by an officer whom can then issue a citation.

One issue holding back implementation of such devices is the sheer volume of work it may place upon a judicial system which is currently over capacity. There are countless defenses (regardless of whether they're valid or not) which is generally believed to be likely to bring in considerable guilty w/ explanation & not guilty pleas for camera-generated citations.

Using cameras for enforcing intersection blocking would require further refinements to the law beyond my previous post. Many jurisdictions have laws for automated enforcement which specifically permit the government to use automated enforcement for specific purposes, hence a new law may be necessary to permit agencies to use cameras for other purposes.

Not saying I'm supportive or against any of this... just offering more info for others to think about.


by Bossi on Sep 8, 2010 5:23 pm • linkreport

The only thing that would motivate a driver stuck in the kind of traffic which causes conditions for box-blocking, would be to start enforcing penalties for the infraction, moving violation, whatever it is. When I want to get home, yes I probably will take the change and cross the intersection in hopes that I will get through, possibly "blocking the box." That sign has never made me think twice about it, but a fine absolutely would.

by Herring on Sep 8, 2010 5:31 pm • linkreport

I'm guessing the technology isn't in place to do this yet. Because if it were, the District would DEFINITELY have installed cameras such as these already, simply because it would be a massive revenue-generator.

by anon on Sep 8, 2010 5:34 pm • linkreport

"The biggest impediment to vehicular traffic running smoothly isn't vehicular traffic ... but instead those pedestrians and those cyclists that break the law by taking a right of way that isn't theirs to take."

Well, I think that the biggest impediment to pedestrian and bicycle traffic running smoothly isn't pedestrian and bicycle traffic ... but instead those motor vehicles that break the law by taking a right of way that isn't theirs to take.

Of course, in Lance's word, cars do not cause congestion -- it's all of those damn pedestrians and bicyclists who are the real cause of congestion in Washington. If we just got rid of all of the pedestrians and bicyclists, traffic in Washington would flow ever so smoothly. Look at the Beltway, I-66 or I-270 -- no pedestrians or bicyclists in sight, which is why vehicular traffic always flows so smoothly on those congestion-free roads.

Also, in Lance's world, any pedestrian or bicyclist who breaks even the slightest rule should be sentenced to death while drivers who do not stop at a crosswalk when pedestrians are present or who block crosswalks or who endanger pedestrians by speeding or talking on a cell phone or double park in a bicycle lane (I see dozens of examples of all of these every day) are simply innocent victims of the vagaries of the horrible Washington traffic imposed on them by pedestrians and bicyclists making unwelcome claims on that preciuous right-of-way.

And maybe Lance has a point. I mean, who the hell do I think I am, expecting drivers to obey the law and yield to me when I cross the street at a crosswalk. I need to remember to shut up and defer to the " real stakeholders" on these issues.

by rg on Sep 8, 2010 5:40 pm • linkreport

I agree with the earlier posts that many, if not most, box blocking incidents are caused by someone on foot, a bike, or a car pulling out of a space, blocking traffic PAST the intersection.

The only way to avoid blocking the box in downtown DC (or any crowded area) is to come to a complete stop at every intersection, and only proceed when the intersection is clear and there is a full car-length of clearance past the intersection. In other words, grind all vehicular traffic to a complete halt.

Which would be great for the city's economic health, given that 100% of all products sold in the city arrive at their final destination by...motor vehicle (whoops, did I just let the air out of the urbanist balloon?)

by anti-urbanist on Sep 8, 2010 5:43 pm • linkreport

Backing up what Trevor said - a few years back (like 10) I was in NYC and asked my friend who lived there how it was that NYC didn't have "box blockers." His response? They ticket in NY with fines and points. I'm sure that if enforcement increased in DC we'd see similar obedience of the law pretty quickly.

by EZ on Sep 8, 2010 5:54 pm • linkreport

Red light cameras should be banned. They serve two functions, neither of which promote the greater good:
* generate revenue for the jurisdiction
* causing rear-end collisions when motorists slam on their brakes, catching the car behind unaware
If you want to enforce the box, put a cop there.

by movement on Sep 8, 2010 5:55 pm • linkreport

As I head home, I have to think about how I get to the Metro from my office without crossing any streets and then to my house from the Metro without crossing any streets. After all, I don't want to make any unwelcome claims on the right-of-way. Indeed, I should perhaps completely rethink my commute and buy a car and start driving to and from work. That way, my commute will not contribute to Washington's awful street congestion the way my current commute does...........

by rg on Sep 8, 2010 6:01 pm • linkreport

@movement - if you can't stop in time to avoid hitting the car in front of you you're not leaving enough space. There are myriad reasons someone driving in the city may need to stop suddenly. Leaving enough stopping distance is a basic lesson in driver's ed. So is driving with extra caution approaching/at intersections. Only risk-taking non-defensive drivers rear-end cars in front of them.

by Bianchi on Sep 8, 2010 6:03 pm • linkreport


Yes, red light cameras do tend to cause more rear-end collisions, but they avert more right angle collisions. The overall effect is slightly, although not overwhelmingly, positive. See my earlier comment.

Generating revenue for a local jurisdiction is not inherently a bad thing. In fact, generating revenue from illegal activity is a good thing if the alternative is generating revenue from a source that discourages beneficial activity (such as an income or sales tax).

by Stanton Park on Sep 8, 2010 6:05 pm • linkreport

Blocking the box causes pain for all - and all because a few just plain break the law - the police have plenty more things to do than beef up traffic enforcement - I really like the idea of some kind of camera situation. Citations change driver behavior very well and since I avoid this kind of situation it shouldn't be a problem!

by waterflow on Sep 8, 2010 6:13 pm • linkreport

This is the stupidest idea I ever heard. You can't be serious. If you are, you have the mental ability of a slug.

by Kate on Sep 8, 2010 6:20 pm • linkreport

We need to teach Lance about Venn Diagrams....At some point, all drivers are pedestrians, but not all pedestrians are drivers. Unless of course, we live the the Utopian dreams of in the 50s where we all zoom past urban blight to our homes in the suburbs on congestion free highways.

To address Lance's concern that pedestrians and cyclists are at fault, there's an easy solution: traffic penalties should be based on momentum. If you are speeding in an SVU you pose a much great risk than someone in a small car or a bike.

What we need at these intersections is barriers to automatically pop up when the light turns red. There was a video of such an intersection in the UK that I can no longer find.

As for whether or not blocking the box counts as running a red light....if you are in the intersection (ie- haven't cleared the cross walk at the far side) when the light turns red, you have run a red light. If you can't fit across the intersection, then you wait.

People wont behave if they have nothing to lose.

by wr on Sep 8, 2010 6:27 pm • linkreport

I am in favor of red-light camera enforcement. Whether it can be used to discourage blocking the box, I don't know but camera enforcement makes drivers more cautious and more aware of red lights.

by RobertM on Sep 8, 2010 6:44 pm • linkreport

@Bossi "A motorist may not enter into an intersection unless capable of fully exiting the intersection within the same continuous movement."

Did you sit back and think what this really means? It means that each and every car will need to come to a complete stop at every intersection with a traffic signal. (How else can you be sure that the car ahead of you will be able to exit the intersection AND leave you room to exit too.) We may as well put up stop signs, 'cause that's not how traffic lights are supposed to work. It's supposed to alternate flows of traffic, and not a create a 'stop sign'-like traffic flow.

by Lance on Sep 8, 2010 6:59 pm • linkreport

This may be my HUGEST pet peeve in the world. People knowingly get into the intersection when still green, but fully knowing it is going to turn red before they will be able to clear the intersection therefore blocking my access to get across.

I think the red light cameras are a GREAT tool to reduce this as well as cut down on accidents which in turn slow down the flow of traffic.

by Jimmy V. on Sep 8, 2010 7:01 pm • linkreport


In many cases there's plenty of room on the other side & it's plainly visible what the traffic in front is going to do. I'll concede that on some occasion I'm not paying attention and end up blocking, myself, but it's never something I want to do; and I'd rightly deserve being fined for it.

Consider the consequences of these actions on the cross-street traffic when motorists block the intersection. Especially at the Dave Thomas Circle: intersection blocking utterly locks out some of the movements at a couple points along the circle.

by Bossi on Sep 8, 2010 7:04 pm • linkreport

I am going to double up. This can't be done by cameras. It needs to be done by actual police who can make judgment calls. In larger intersections of wide roads, you would need to leave about 4 car lengths between you and the car in front of you to absolutely guarantee you did not block the box. In slow moving traffic, that's an unrealistic expectation. Again, I absolutely favor ticketing for people who cruise into intersections that are already backed up on the other side. But that is not always how people get stuck in an intersection, and a camera can't tell the difference.

by Nate on Sep 8, 2010 7:22 pm • linkreport

Please refrain from ad hominem attacks. It is not appropriate to insult someone merely because you disagree with him or her.

by Matt Johnson, Assistant Editor on Sep 8, 2010 7:39 pm • linkreport

I never would have thought of this at first, but it actually sounds like a really great idea. If you're blocking the box you ARE running a red light. And you're really creating way more traffic than necessary. How do we make this happen?

by Jim on Sep 8, 2010 7:57 pm • linkreport

What a grand idea. what do we have to do to make it happen?

by fred smith on Sep 8, 2010 8:07 pm • linkreport

Most of the problems are with the buses blocking the intersections in my experience. Especially WMATA buses. And since there is no way on earth Craig's union will allow the law to take its course with menaces that pilot the buses, save the money there and give it to me to buy some heavy artillery - a tank shot or three ought to take care of it.

by varun on Sep 8, 2010 8:10 pm • linkreport

I do my best not to block the box. But how do you prevent the following, which happens to me in rush hour at least once a week: I wait until there is space on the other side of the intersection for me (when I have the green), and then as I start into the intersection some &&$*(#$ makes a right on red and dives in ahead of me, thereby leaving me stranded in the crosswalk or intersection? A camera wouldn't catch that, or have the judgment necessary to fairly assess the situation. Not that humans are any better: a couple years ago that happened to me and a helpful pedestrian decided they were entitled to hit my car with their bag, leaving a $400 dent in the side panel.

by B on Sep 8, 2010 8:12 pm • linkreport


Yeah, I've been in those same situations & share your aggravation with right-turns instead blocking. Increased NTOR restrictions could address that, but of course consideration would have to be given to whether the intersection can handle restricting right-turns as compared to potential benefits to through traffic under congested operations as well as ped/bike operations.

by Bossi on Sep 8, 2010 8:18 pm • linkreport

After creating motor vehicle congestion havoc with my combined Metro/walking trip home from the office, I created downright motor vehicle congestion pandemonium by biking to and from the gym. But don't worry -- I will soon abide by the rules of "the real stakeholders" in the Committee of 100 and buy a car. Once I start driving a car to and from the gym, I will be able to rest secure knowing that my trip to the gym did not add to motor vehicle congestion...........

by rg on Sep 8, 2010 8:18 pm • linkreport

B, if enforcement is done by video, and not by photo, than it is easy to show what happened.

I dont know how the current DC red light cameras work, but in states Im familiar with, you get a letter in the mail giving you the url to a 10 second video showing your infraction. Very easy to see if you did or did not break the law.

by JJJJJ on Sep 8, 2010 9:51 pm • linkreport

@Lance.. seriously?! Yes, if you can't exit the intersection you shouldn't enter it. That's what we are taught in NC, and it's probably the law here as well. Yes, that means that traffic lights turn into stop signs when the street is congested-- congested areas are already stop-and-go by definition, and no one is suggesting stopping at green lights in uncongested areas.

Besides, if a green light means that you can cross the intersection regardless of the traffic conditions, then why don't the folks who have the green light when you are blocking the box not have that right too?

But you know what? Do what ever you want! I walk and ride to work.. if you are blocking the box when my light turns green, then I'm going to cross in front of you. Box blocking is a problem FOR drivers caused BY drivers. So I don't really care if someone's blocking Lance's box.

For what it's worth, peds and bikes should follow relavent traffic laws as well.

by Steven on Sep 8, 2010 10:13 pm • linkreport

@Bossi Consider the consequences of these actions on the cross-street traffic when motorists block the intersection. Especially at the Dave Thomas Circle: intersection blocking utterly locks out some of the movements at a couple points along the circle.

I'm not advocating blocking the box, I'm just pointing out that in heavy downtown DC traffic there are many many times when it is impossible to know if you'll be able to cross the intersection completely when you start to cross it. So, following the 'rule' people on here who obiviously don't drive are advocating would literally mean grinding traffic to a complete halt as one waited for rush hour to stop in order to be able to accurately gauge if you can make it completely across before the red light. And to the guy who said 'In North Carolina ... ' Please, this isn't North Carolina (thank God!), compare the driving conditions here to NYC or London or Paris ... but they ain't nothing like in North Carolina ... Of course you can easily gauge it there ... the only thing you have to worry about is a cow or some deer crossing as you're preparing to cross the intersection ...

by Lance on Sep 8, 2010 11:23 pm • linkreport


Agreed it can sometimes be difficult to gauge... but so long as I pay attention I've never had a problem. Every time I get trapped & block has always been my fault for not giving due regard for conditions in front of me. Even from the low vantage point of my Saab, it's more than possible to keep tabs on what's happening beyond the next car in front of me.

Sure it's not without its own aggravations: right-turns will take my gap & sit on the far side crosswalk; or sometimes your *only* opportunity to clear an intersection is to block, as your gaps are taken by the other street's green. But to that end there is patience, alternative routing, and the knowledge that blocking an intersection is a textbook case of an individual benefit at a strong system cost.

And I'd hesitate to say that others sharing this viewpoint don't drive: it's my job to drive.

by Bossi on Sep 8, 2010 11:42 pm • linkreport

One note - red light camera tickets are generated automatically, but they are all verified by a set of human eyes before going out. It is not a completely automated system.,a,1240,Q,547900,mpdcNav_GID,1552,mpdcNav,|31885|,.asp#how

Cameras capture violations on film and record all of the relevant data for the violation. For example, when a red-light violation occurs, the camera records the date, time, vehicle's speed, and time elapsed since the beginning of the red signal. The images are then analyzed, possible extenuating circumstances are considered, and the registered owner of the vehicle is verified. A citation showing a photo of the violation is then mailed to the vehicle owner. Individuals may now view their violation images online (requires ticket number and unique personal identification number provided on the mailed citation).

The same could be easily adapted for blocking the box. Set clear guidelines for what is worthy of a fine, and then have each photo of the infraction reviewed (as is currently the case for red light cameras) and tickets issued only in cases where the driver is at fault.

by Alex B. on Sep 8, 2010 11:58 pm • linkreport

"Don't block the box" was coined by "Gridlock Sam" Schwartz, transportation commissioner under Ed Koch. As a PR stunt, he and the Rockettes gave out "positive tickets" to drivers who refused to block the box -- including free parking and Radio City tickets.

Technology makes this a lot easier now: imagine the PR coup if just 1% of the revenue from penalty tickets went back to people in the form of such positive tickets.

by Payton Chung on Sep 9, 2010 12:29 am • linkreport

Someone mentioned a $500 fine. Well that's what it is in California, and has been for many years, for blocking an intersection. And you will get a ticket.

by DamnYankee on Sep 9, 2010 1:33 am • linkreport

Though I disagree with the writer's view of cameras as only a source of revenue, I like his idea to use the cameras to keep people from blocking the intersections. There is nothing more irritating than having to wait at a green light becuase somebody went through an intersection when it wasn't clear.

by David R. on Sep 9, 2010 4:49 am • linkreport

I see the box-blocker apologists are out in full force. Beyond "the jay-walkers made me do it" and "but the traffic just STOPPED out of nowhere," I invite you to go to K street at 6:30pm. On particularly bad nights, vehicles waiting at a cross street may wait over two cycles of green lights staring at solid walls of side doors of cars and buses. The gridlock produced by box-blocking on K street is out of control, and something must be done.

This is hyper-box blocking, and for each accidental block of the box, there are those (perhaps a minority) who habitually drive in a manner that has them end up square in the intersection. A green light doesn't always mean go, and drivers need eduction and motivation to avoid this massive waste of time and safety hazard.

by Fabian on Sep 9, 2010 10:00 am • linkreport

I have this problem every morning at N Lynn St & Wilson Blvd in Arlington. I cross this intersection as a pedestrian to get to work and every single light cycle during morning rush hour the box gets blocked by cars on Lynn St and the cars on Wilson Blvd start honking. The cars on Lynn street then try to get out of the way any way they can and they're paying attention to the honking cars rather than the pedestrians (which have all of 17 seconds to cross). I've been nearly hit dozens of times, thankfully I've never actually been hit. Waiting until the next light cycle is useless, because it happens over and over. I've complained to the county suggesting they put in a camera, change the timing of nearby lights, or put a police officer at the intersection in the morning and the response so far has been along the lines of "we'll look into it". Very dangerous, very annoying.

by Adam on Sep 9, 2010 10:35 am • linkreport

Well, I think that herring's comment sums up the human nature problem here quite nicely. "That sign has never made me think twice about it, but a fine would." I guess you can't count on people to think of others....

In any case, as I recall, San Francisco had (or has) a major problem with this during the afternoon rush in intersections near the Bay Bridge onramps. So not only were there signs, the entire intersection would be painted with a cross-hatch design and I believe there were regularly traffic cops stationed at these intersections. To give tickets but also to control movements. The system seemed to work well. It sounds as if from other posts that NYC has done similar things. Couldn't the District do something similar (wouldn't require investments in new camera technology, installing them, reviewing them manually later before actually mailing the ticket, etc.)? I note that there are traffic cops on 14th St regularly. I assume, being generous, that these people are here for training purposes since most of the time there is hardly enough traffic to warrant their presence. (In the morning, but even some afternoons....) If all these people are trained, doesn't that mean they are ready for deployment on K street or Constitution Ave or wherever the blocking of the box is routinely the worst?

by Josh S on Sep 9, 2010 10:40 am • linkreport

I will readily admit that I know little about traffic laws specific to DC/VA/MD, but having living in a variety of other jurisdictions, I disagree with the premise that "box blocking" -- however obnoxious -- is universally considered red light running. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety defines running a red light as follows:

"A violation occurs when a motorist *enters* an intersection some time after the signal light has turned red. Motorists inadvertently in an intersection when the signal changes to red (waiting to turn left, for example) are not red light runners." (emphasis added)

Maryland Transportation Code Title 21 Subtitle 2 is somewhat ambiguous on timing but does state that "[v]ehicular traffic facing a steady yellow signal is warned that the related green movement is ending or that a red signal, which will prohibit vehicular traffic from *entering* the intersection, will be shown immediately after the yellow signal." (emphasis added)

How, then, is "box blocking" illegal under these definitions?

by Ben M. on Sep 9, 2010 11:26 am • linkreport

Generally I can see if the traffic is coming to a stop before crossing the box. But if I'm stuck behind SUVs, minivans, vans, pickups, or trucks, which are taller than a regular sedan, good luck.

by Anders on Sep 9, 2010 11:27 am • linkreport

@Ben M-

See my first comment for a bit more on the legal issues:

by Bossi on Sep 9, 2010 12:50 pm • linkreport

Uhmmm... this post doesn't really make sense. It seems to just express general disdain for drivers and does not seem to evidence much of an understanding of urban driving.

No, blocking the box is not tantamount to running a red light. Yes, intentional blocking the box is obnoxious. But as several comments have noted, many instances of blocking the box are not intentional, but are caused by unforeseeable, sudden stops in traffic. Short of everyone stopping at an intersection on a green light and waiting for the car ahead to clear the intersection, there would be no way to guarantee "obeying" the law. The automated ticketing proposed in the post would catch some folks acting intentionally, but would also tax a large number of people, chosen randomly, simply for driving. If drivers wanted to "obey" such cameras by stopping on the green and waiting for the car ahead to clear the intersection, having every car stop on the green wouldn't seem to do much for efficiency.

By the way -- Arlington County, nice job in targeting out-of-state residents with those red light cameras on the border in Rosslyn, just over the key bridge. It seems like your short yellow cycle has done a lot to help tax interstate drivers. For residents, it is a bit of a pain to have to jam on the breaks when the light is still green, but just keep publicizing the intersections in local publications and local residents can learn to treat these intersections as being different from anywhere else--essentially as toll roads for out-of-state drivers.

by reader on Sep 9, 2010 1:29 pm • linkreport

Putting cameras in the intersection is a great idea. People need to be more aware around them when he or she is driving. It is easy to tell if there is a line of cars ahead of the box, so anyone can use their best judgment whether or not to drive forward.
Implementing this will not only keep other drivers safe, but pedestrians and bikers as well.

by Jdundas on Sep 9, 2010 4:28 pm • linkreport

Exactly! If more people got tickets for this then maybe it wouldn't happen as much! It would make evening commutes (especially down Mass Ave) SO much easier to navigate! Bring on more cameras!

by Kathy on Sep 9, 2010 4:29 pm • linkreport

We should use every available asset to enforce our traffic laws. Red light cameras deter reckless driving and they can deter traffic jamming behavior like blocking the box too. Street cops aren't nearly as efficient or effective because bad drivers think if they don't see them they are safe, cameras are always there and always on so they will force reckless drivers to adjust their driving habits.

by yogilives on Sep 9, 2010 5:04 pm • linkreport

I think this is a great idea- I get really irritated when this is done to get on the freeways as well- the whole road is blocked! This is impeding traffic and should be enforced.

by Kindra on Sep 9, 2010 7:44 pm • linkreport


I can't help but think I'm misreading your comment... could you elaborate more on how intersections are blocked on a freeway? :)

by Bossi on Sep 9, 2010 8:22 pm • linkreport

This idea would never work. Do we really want motorists to treat every green light like a stop sign? Stop at the light, wait until the car in front of you crosses the 6 lanes of traffic, wait until you see a car's distance free before you pull forward? That's the only way you can expect this to work. I know sometimes people block the box on purpose, and that those people are annoying. But I've legitimately been stuck in the box as a total fluke of traffic.

If this is a serious problem it needs people's eyes watching to see if its intentional, not revenue-cameras. And if its happening all the time, the lights need to be re-timed.

by elysian on Sep 9, 2010 8:35 pm • linkreport

In Manhattan, that is exactly what happens, and it works. You only do it when it seems like you could possibly not make it, of course. It works better for everyone. It's less dangerous - blocking the box certainly is dangerous, although probably less so than red light running proper. It's one of those things that's not that hard and makes everyone's trip faster and safer. There is no excuse to block the box, ever.

by ldrks on Sep 9, 2010 9:10 pm • linkreport

%500 is a pretty decent incentive to not break the law, which you shouldn't be breaking in the first place. I wonder how many minutes are lost by 911 responders because some self-important idiot decided her/his marginal proximity to home was worth someone else's health or life? Don't fall ill during rush hour in DC, you'll never survive.

by copperred on Sep 9, 2010 9:45 pm • linkreport

Really, there is no excuse to block the box, EVER!~!!!?
Our society allows mitigating defenses that will let a person totally off for murder but you can't think of one single reason for blocking the box except for intent to piss you off?
What if you're behind a bus or big SUV and your line of sight is blocked? What if you're the first car waiting at a green light, and it looks like traffic ahead of you is starting to move, but its really just the last car in line inching forward but there's still not enough room for you, and you wait the whole cycle of the light and are still stuck there? (this is how I got stuck in the box).

Is there no excuse walk against the signal, ever? What if you trip and fall into the street - jaywalker! No excuse to ever create a digital copy of the music you've legally purchased, ever?! Not even for a backup or to make fair use! You should work for the DMCA, that was their view when that law came out...

The fact is that intent is relevant. Although I hate the red light cameras and the speed cameras too, for the same reason, at least with this offense 50% of the time it happens accidentally (in my opinion).

If this is a problem at certain intersections, it needs human eyes watching for it.

by elysian on Sep 10, 2010 6:20 am • linkreport

I hate box-blockers. I drive (out of necessity for work) through and outside of the city quite often and avoid blocking the box as best as I can. And I seethe and curse under my breath at the idiots who blatently enter an intersection when half of it is already blocked (the car in front of them is juuuust avoiding blocking traffic, and they're at a full stop, and the people behind STILL go through and block the eintre intersection. Jacka**es.)

Yet I still get stuck blocking half an intersection sometimes. Not often, but it HAS happened, because of people comming to a sudden, unexpected stop. Like someone pulls out of a gas station in front, and everyone has to slam on their breaks, and the light suddently goes from green to yellow to red, as I panic and desperately try to get out of the way, to the next lane, anything. Mostly it's because I fear getting slammed into, but also out of consideration. Thankfully most of the time I manage to get out of the way before getting honked at.

In short, I don't think cameras are fair. I'm up for hearing about other methods, but would hate to see cameras go up.

by poc on Sep 10, 2010 2:13 pm • linkreport

I agree with Robert M, I am also in favor of red-light camera enforcement. Hope they help with this, they definitely help reduce accidents.

by karen on Sep 10, 2010 8:41 pm • linkreport

@movement: actually, BOTH of those functions serve the greater good:
* generating revenue for the jurisdiction means more services and lower taxes, which is good; and
* rear-end collisions are much less injurious than the T-bone crashes that red light runners cause, which saves lives.

by Payton on Dec 7, 2010 5:57 pm • linkreport

Two things.

If you see that the traffic on the other side of your green light does not have at least one car length (accounting for the crosswalk) free, you DO NOT proceed, even if the light is green. Even if the peckerheads behind you are honking. If if an sleezepus swings in front of you to take advantage of your act of civil obedience. Even if you have to stop at every single green light for a few seconds on your commute. DO NOT PROCEED. Period. One thing that helps is if an intersection that is normally very busy at rush hour prohibits right turns on red during rush hour. That can (hopefully) deter right-turn-on-red violators that snatch up that empty car length.

Also keep in mind that, on many occasions, emergency vehicles cannot get through blocked boxes. If you block the box when an ambulance, fire truck, police car is on an emergency call, you should probably be charged with a felony. Is anyone aware if this is a law anywhere?

by Rufus T. Firefly on Jun 2, 2011 8:19 pm • linkreport

I know this is a really old thread but I was online searching for a way to report a chronic "block the box" problem. Every afternoon between 4pm-6pm coming out of the 3rd St tunnel at Mass Ave, the intersection at 2nd and H St NW is constantly blocked. The folks travelling west-bound on H St are continuously getting stuck there blocking at least one, if not both lanes of 2nd St heading North. The probelm is compounding by construction on the northwest corner, of course. Only one day of the past three months have I seen a patrol car sitting there to deter this problem.

What gives? Is there a way to report this anywhere since we don't have 311 anymore?

by Janel on May 17, 2012 7:48 am • linkreport

Janel: There is still 311, and I definitely urge you to start with that. Besides dialing 311, you can also submit a request at Just make sure to click on the green plus icon that says "submit a new service request" in the lower half of the screen, since all of the links to different types of service requests in the upper half just go to pages which describe the type of service and then link you back to the 311 page in a confusing way.

by David Alpert on May 17, 2012 8:19 am • linkreport

Here is the latest information on DC's photo enforcement of intersection-blocking violations. In short, it's now in place at 20 locations, listed on this webpage:

by Alexandra on Jun 11, 2014 4:05 am • linkreport

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