When Marty Tapscott, a D.C. assistant police chief, says he's seen some close calls in his life, he's not talking about guns and dark alleys. He's talking about driving to work every day in traffic full of red light runners.

"It's dangerous out there," Tapscott says.

A yellow light at an intersection "used to be a signal to get ready to stop," said Dave Russell, a police spokesman in Fairfax County. "Now, it's a signal to speed up and go through."

Since January, the District and surrounding jurisdictions have issued more than 18,000 citations to red light and stop sign violators.

The streets have become such war zones, drivers complain, that it's a risk to go on green. It's even a risk to stop on red.

"I stop at the light," said one motorist, "but I'm always nervous about the guy behind me."

As with other traffic offenses, there is no way to know how often red light violations occur.

But a spot check by The Washington Post of nine heavily traveled intersections indicates that abuses are widespread. They occur most often during rush hours and involve a cross section of commuter and noncommuter vehicles, including police cars and ambulances not on emergency calls, buses and mail carriers.

During the recent informal survey, which was based on observations and police traffic flow projections, The Post counted 2,455 red light runners out of some 130,000 motorists who drove through the nine intersections.

The consequences of running the light are easier to measure.

In 1984 alone, according to area officials, seven persons died in the metropolitan region and at least 800 were injured in accidents caused by failure to obey traffic signals, usually red lights. Traffic light violations overall last year resulted in 18 deaths and at least 2,323 injuries statewide in Maryland, while 12 persons died and at least 1,497 were injured in similar accidents in Virginia.

Regional data on traffic light violations for the first quarter of 1985 is still being compiled in many jurisdictions, and some are better than others at keeping pertinent statistics. Reports so far show that at least two persons have died and more than 30 have been injured.

The most recent fatality occurred Thursday, according to police, when a bicyclist and a taxicab driver both ran the light at a District intersection. The bicyclist, who died of internal injuries, collided with the taxi and was dragged beneath it. The cabdriver was charged with running a red light.44,600 Fatalities Cited ---

Compared with drunk driving -- considered a factor in about half of all traffic accidents -- and speeding, running red lights causes significantly fewer fatalities and injuries. In 1983, according to the National Safety Council's most recent figures, there were 44,600 traffic fatalities and 1.1 million injury-producing accidents. Of these, 1,248 deaths and more than 48,000 injuries were attributed to the failure to obey traffic signals, most commonly red lights.

Still, the everyday observance of red light violators, coupled with the public perception that police are doing nothing about them, is a police concern.

"Red light running right now is probably the most pervasive violation we have," said Capt. David Baker, commander of the District's traffic enforcement branch. He noted that violations have multiplied since many localities began permitting right turns on red, and said the offense "perpetuates all the other problems" of blocked intersections and bumper-to-bumper traffic.

The Post's survey, conducted in April and involving five intersections in the District, two in suburban Maryland and two in Northern Virginia, turned up the greatest percentage of rush hour violators at the Georgetown intersection of Wisconsin Avenue and M Street NW. The lowest percentage of rush hour violations occurred at Glebe Road and Walter Reed Drive in Arlington County.

At the Georgetown intersection, for example, 182 motorists out of 5,270 ran red lights one weekday afternoon between 4:15 and 6:15 p.m. At the Arlington County intersection, 68 out of 6,120 motorists ran the light during a similar two-hour period.

Alarmed at the growing problem -- and aware that the region's nearly 3,300 traffic lights "have lost their sanctity," in the words of one official -- the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments recently adopted a resolution urging a crackdown. Stiffer Penalties Urged ---

The resolution, passed in March, recommended stiffer penalties for those who violate red light laws, stronger enforcement efforts and a public education campaign about the danger of such traffic offenses.

"As our communities become more congested, we must take extra steps to enforce safety," said Albert Eisenberg, an Arlington County Board member who is chairman of COG's public safety policy committee.

Current penalties in the region range from a $20 fine and one point (three points if the violation causes an accident) in Montgomery and Prince George's counties to a $35 fine and four points for violators in Alexandria and in Arlington and Fairfax counties.

The District fines red light violators $75 -- increased last June from $25 -- and assesses two points toward the loss of their license.

Eisenberg said COG officials will lobby the Virginia and Maryland legislatures in January on behalf of measures to increase sanctions against violators. In addition, COG soon hopes to start plastering area vehicles with "I Stop for Red Lights" bumper stickers.

But it will take more than slogans on cars to restore order to the streets, officials say.

"There's a gradual erosion of respect for the sacred edict of the traffic light," argued Bruce Gentile, spokesman for Prince George's County police. "People today are in a hurry and impatient, and the light may not allow enough time, in their mind, to go through it."

Police officials, traffic engineers, motorists and some violators themselves link red light running to the general increase in traffic snarls in the Washington region. They complain about jaywalkers, the lack of synchronized lighting and the failure of many motorists to obey parking restrictions.

"In the evening the problem is parked cars that get ticketed but not towed," said Vera Hannigan, who commutes from Reston to the District. "You get very nasty when you're sitting burning gas and find that the obstruction is an illegally parked car."

And because one obstruction often causes another, driving in the area, especially in the District, with its antiquated traffic signal system, can be like maneuvering through an obstacle course:

Get around the taxi that stops in the middle of the street to pick up a fare, and you run into a pedestrian crossing against the light.

Enter one of the city's famous traffic circles as the flashing yellow arrow turns red, and you hit another red light or two as you make your way to the other side.

Inch past the bus, which can't pull over because cars are parked in its bus stop zone, and you run into an intersection jammed with cars whose drivers went through the light on yellow or red and got stuck in the middle, with no room to move ahead.

Just a few experiences like these, motorists say, and they quickly adopt what might be called the Un-Golden Rule or Hill Street Blues approach to driving: Do it to them before they do it to you.

"Stress can lead to hasty and aggressive behavior," according to James Rotton, an environmental psychologist at Florida International University who has studied the effects of commuter and long distance driving.

"After people commute varying distances, they are apt to be less tolerant of frustration," Rotton said. "If there are a lot of blocks or obstacles, they may be less willing to wait for a light."

Area traffic engineers say most signal lights in the region operate on timed sequences that change depending on the time of day and flow of traffic. In the best of circumstances, lights along major commuter routes are synchronized so that drivers keeping to a certain speed can go for blocks and often miles without having to stop. Sensors in the pavement detect traffic in the side streets, triggering light changes.

Using this system, officials say, the average stop at a traffic light may be as short as 15 seconds and no longer than a minute and 40 seconds.

In the worst of circumstances, such as along Rte. 50 in Maryland during the summer, traffic on the side streets may be stopped for nearly three minutes as eastbound motorists head for the beaches.

Notable exceptions to this timing pattern occur when the traffic lights break down, something that happens frequently in the District.

Of about 1,275 traffic lights in the District, according to George Schoene, the city's chief traffic engineer, about 255, or 20 percent, of them "aren't doing what we want them to do at any given time."

D.C.'s traffic signal system is about to undergo a $25 million upgrading that will put the timing controls on a central computer, improving the ability to identify and repair faulty operations.

With the new system, which should be functioning at downtown intersections within two years, Schoene said the District's traffic lights will no longer be thrown off sync or become stuck in cold and hot weather. Police Prodding Needed --

Still, advanced computer systems are seen primarily as ways to keep the traffic flowing smoothly. Few officials expect that signal light synchronization will curb offenders. Reducing the number of violators, they say, will require prodding by police -- and the public's cooperation.

Area jurisdictions have stepped up enforcement against red light runners, but police and COG officials say there is no way to maintain the crackdown indefinitely.

"Like most agencies, we have limited resources," said Sgt. Thomas Hoffman of Arlington County's special operations section. "I wish I had 40 traffic officers and could have all of them on intersections during rush hour. Unfortunately, I only have eight."

Several motorists and pedestrians interviewed suggested stiffer penalties for red light violators; others complained about violators but said current police enforcement is adequate.

And then there was Richard Follette, a recent visitor. He commended motorists here for their courteousness and said pedestrians seem to obey the "Don't Walk" signs better than in his home town.

Follette is from New York.