It’s Time for Cities to Rethink Right Turns on Red

Photo:  Bill Schultheiss
Photo: Bill Schultheiss

Legal right turns on red are practically a given at intersections from rural Oklahoma to urban Boston. But it wasn’t always so.

It wasn’t until the 1970s that allowing drivers to turn right during the red signal phase became common across the country, says Bill Schultheiss, a civil engineer at Toole Design Group who specializes in bike facilities.

Precipitated by the OPEC oil embargo, the Energy Policy and Conservation Act of 1975 required states to allow rights on red to receive certain federal funds. Decades later, every state in the U.S. allows rights on red everywhere — other than New York City — except when prohibited by signage.

Letting drivers turn on red can save gas, but there is a trade-off. Though recent studies are lacking, the body of research shows that allowing rights on red compromises safety for people who walk and bike.

Permitting rights on red increases pedestrian crashes by 60 percent and bike crashes by 100 percent, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found in the 1980s.

A 1995 NHTSA report [PDF] found that the number of right-on-red fatalities was relatively small — about 84 a year — but that 44 percent of the victims were pedestrians, and another 10 percent were bicyclists. Over the 11-year study period, the report stated that 924 people were killed in right-on-red crashes. More than 500 of those killed were people walking and biking.

Injury figures were much higher. For instance, in right-on-red crashes in Indiana, Maryland, and Missouri between 1989 and 1992, injuries occurred at 100 times the rate of fatalities.

With U.S. pedestrian fatalities rising year after year, Schultheiss says it’s time to rethink right-on-red as the default in densely populated places where lots of people walk.

“Should there be right turn on red in a central business district where there’s a whole lot of pedestrians?” Schultheiss said. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

Schultheiss has been doing some work on H Street in Washington, a walkable corridor where the city has made major investments, including the DC streetcar. But though traffic is so intense that right turns on red are practically impossible, it’s still technically allowed. As a result, pedestrians must constantly watch for motorists attempting to turn, often while blocking a crosswalk.

Since it challenges 40 years of bad design habits, Schultheiss said prohibiting rights on red is “a paperwork nightmare,” so engineers are “reluctant to do it.”

“It’s just another example where we prioritize mobility over safety,” he said.

  • jcwconsult

    Well designed pedestrian precincts have NO vehicle traffic during normal business hours. Commercial deliveries take place before and after normal business hours. The streets that border the precincts or cross multi-block precincts are often designed for very low speeds, including the pick-up and drop off traffic plus the buses and taxis. Then good planners assure adequate parking on or near the faster collector and arterial streets that lead close to the pedestrian precincts – to serve the shoppers coming from some distance away by car. Halifax, West Yorkshire near where my wife is from is a superb example. It has a Victorian area shopping mall, many stores, government offices, the library, and other services within the pedestrian precinct.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • Haggie

    No right turn at busy pedestrian intersections and leading pedestrian interval (LPI) at all others.

  • Haggie

    Is it really “insane” that you have to wait 30 seconds or a minute in order to protect pedestrians and bicyclists?

    Maybe I am “insane” for thinking that your time isn’t so valuable that it warrants other people dying?

  • Michael

    I love, when people respond without reading properly! 🙂
    I was very specific: “when I have to wait for green light at midnight, with no pedestrians in sight.”

    So one more time: it’s MIDNIGHT, there are NO pedestrians, but I still have to wait.

  • Michael

    While the absolute number of pedestrian deaths might be higher, let’s not forget that we have way more cars than ever before, and that the US population increased just in the last 10 years by 21 million.
    Therefore we have to look at deaths per 100,000, and this number has been consistently falling down for the last 30 years:
    https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/12/17/guns-are-now-killing-as-many-people-as-cars-in-the-u-s/?utm_term=.537e497d06a2

  • ray allen

    We love bureaucratic inertia (sarcasm intended). I am going to continue trying to get this sign or one lie it adopted, though.

    This is the image file that I put together and emailed to both my local and Federal DOT. If anyone else wants to email ‘our friends in government’ using this image file, please feel free. I’m placing the image in the public domain to make it easier for us to get this sign or one similar to it adopted.

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/32dfa8edd825a137f8fb18574f2203abc1b516ba98d567ae3f40a15f5f0b278d.png

  • Stuart

    You’re conflating traffic fatalities in general with pedestrian fatalities. The former is going down per capita, the latter is going up.

    Cars are becoming increasingly safe for the people inside them due to stronger frames, more airbags, etc. Those things don’t help pedestrians hit by cars.

  • Stuart

    Do you think it’s insane that you can’t go straight through a red light at midnight as well? The situation you’re describing doesn’t seem to have much to do with RTOR.

    The general solution to the problem you are describing is to make light on-demand instead of timed at very-off-peak hours like the middle of the night. No special rule for red lights needed, and helps people going straight or turning left as well. I’ve lived places where it was common practice at many intersections.

  • Stuart

    I’m baffled why you think this would help. Do you think most people who hit pedestrians while turning are running them over on purpose? If not (and I certainly don’t think they are), then the problem is precisely that they aren’t paying enough attention to realize that pedestrians are present.

  • jcwconsult

    Of course people who hit pedestrians don’t do it on purpose.

    The advocacy of the article is to ban many right on red turns at least in central business districts – which I do not feel is appropriate or justified. There can be conditions where a ban might be OK, and I was suggesting some alternative controls I have seen in particular circumstances – such as near elementary and middle schools – or perhaps areas with a high level of elderly pedestrians. I have also seen bans for RTOR in some hours.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • Michael

    Can you share any statistics showing that pedestrian fatalities per 100,000 are going up?

  • Stuart

    You are talking legal

    Yes. That’s because this article, in case you didn’t read it before writing all your comments, is about a law. Specifically, a law that demonstrably causes hundreds to thousands of law-abiding pedestrians to be injured (and in some cases killed) by drivers, for the marginal benefit of drivers.

    And jcwconsult’s argument seems to be that there’s nothing wrong with that, and if pedestrians don’t like the increase in injuries and death they should just learn to dodge better.

    These are laws of physics

    That’s nice, but we’re talking about a law written by people. One that makes what some of us feel is a very poor trade-off between pedestrian safety and driver convenience. One would could be changed as easily as it was changed the first time.

    [Long list of strawmen elided]

    If you can’t see why crossing the street, in a crosswalk, with a green light, is not even vaguely comparable to joining the military or swimming in shark-infested waters or base jumping, I suspect very little of what’s posted on StreetsBlog is going to make sense to you.

  • Michael

    Flashing red and yellow lights is definitely a solution, and it’s been working successfully in many places.

  • Stuart

    Sure, compare the graph of pedestrian fatalities linked in the article to US census data. https://www.census.gov/popclock/ lets you look up approximate values by date, for instance.

    Since 2013, pedestrian fatalities increased 25%, while US population increased 3%.

  • Michael

    Unfortunately, for many pedestrians, red is the new green, as this short compilation shows 🙁

  • Stuart

    Yep, that’s definitely another option. Either way, it avoids the problem you’re describing without creating the problem of requiring drivers to watch for yet another kind of sign, or keep track of time of day rules, to know if a solid read means wait for a green vs. “stop” and then go when they think (very wrongly in hundreds to thousands of cases per year) it’s safe.

  • Stuart

    You realize that this is an article about drivers hitting pedestrians during RTOR, right? As in, when the drivers by definition have a red light and and required to yield to other traffic while turning?

    A video of some pedestrians behaving badly doesn’t excuse drivers hitting pedestrians who are doing absolutely nothing wrong, and has nothing at all do to with whether RTOR should be legal despite the measurable harm it is doing to (again, law-abiding) pedestrians. It’s just derailing.

  • Michael

    From that perspective you’re absolutely right.
    But it would be interesting to see the growth of people and cars in the cities – based on the growing traffic jams in the cities, I think, it would be safe to assume that the congestion and thus forced interaction between cars and pedestrians and a chance for collusion has grown much faster. The number of cars between 2013-2015 increased by almost 12 million, to 264 million.

  • Michael

    After digging deeper into the sources provided, it seems to me that this article was not very well researched.
    For example, in the research from 1984 (http://www.iihs.org/frontend/iihs/documents/masterfiledocs.ashx?id=1076) they said: “The severity of injuries associated with the additional crashes tends to be low” – so they are are not talking about fatalities resulting from RTOR.

    The 1995 NHTSA report states on page 22: “Approximately 84 fatal crashes occurred per year during the 1982-1992 time period involving a right-turning vehicle at an intersection where RTOR is permitted. During this same time period, there were 485,104 fatalities. Thus, less than 0.2 percent of all fatalities involved a right-turning vehicle maneuver at an
    intersection where RTOR is permitted. FARS, however, does not discern whether the traffic signal indication was red. Therefore, the actual number of fatal RTOR crashes is somewhere between zero and 84 and may be closer to zero than 84.
    […]
    Only 1 percent of RTOR pedestrian and bicyclist crashes resulted in fatal injury. However, less than 1 percent (0.2 percent) of all fatal pedestrian and bicyclist crashes result from a RTOR vehicle maneuver.”

    The bottom line is that they don’t know how many fatalities were actually a direct result of RTOR. The authors of the research paper believe that it was a very tiny number…

  • Relax Music & Waves

    Using a better metaphor for you, I’d say, crossing the street is like working on an Aircraft Carrier flight deck. Normally, things work but when things go wrong, you are in a lot of trouble. Now, you can blame the pilot, or the landing cable that brakes, etc. The idea that the military teaches is you are responsible whether or not you are legally responsible. LA paid over 7 million to a drunk college student crossing Vista Del Mar – jay walking late at night and the poor taxi driver was cleared of wrong doing hit and killed her. Now, he suffers with having killed someone – both are ‘victims.’ Yet, LA decided to settle the suite used as a reason for the Road Diets by Bonin – see Argonaut – that were later reversed even though it was clearly her NEGLIGENCE. I’m just saying regardless of the law, everyone need to take responsibility for crossing the road as their life depends on it. The law never saved anyone. Jumping out of the way of an old person running a red light having a stroke saves your life – doesn’t help blaming the so called person who caused the accident when the victim looking both ways could avoid it. With all the high speed chases in LA, I’ve seen 3 literally in front of me, I double check every direction when driving for speed cars and chases. Those that don’t tend to get side swiped ending the chase, rather than possibly seeing the cops coming.

  • Stuart

    it seems to me that this article was not very well researched

    How so? The article claims that RTOR has a cost in pedestrian safety, and cites specific research that supports that.

    “The severity of injuries associated with the additional crashes tends to be low” – so they are are not talking about fatalities resulting from RTOR

    “Tends to be” isn’t the same thing as “always is”. The article clearly states that in the sources “injuries occurred at 100 times the rate of fatalities” which is completely consistent with severity ‘tending to be’ low.

    The four-state data from the NHTSA shows that there are in fact RTOR fatalities, so yes, these studies are talking about fatalities in addition to injuries.

    The bottom line is that they don’t know how many fatalities were actually a direct result of RTOR.

    For FARS data, yes. For the four-state data, the reports “include on their accident report form either a code for a right-turn-onred
    (RTOR) vehicle maneuver or other codes that make it possible to determine that a RTOR maneuver was executed”

    When they say that it’s “between zero and 84”, it’s clearly not always zero based on the four-state data. Indiana had at least one fatality in three of the four years they have data for. If four states had an average of one RTOR fatality a year, we could guesstimate that across the US the number would be in the neighborhood of 12 per year. Except that would almost certainly be low, because (from Zador) “Research has also shown that, for all crash types investigated, the adoption of RTOR leads to larger increases in crashes in urban areas”—if you were to list the top urban areas in the US, I think you’d find that, Indiana, Maryland, Missouri, and Illinois would not cover many of them.

    The central thesis of the article is that RTOR “compromises safety for people who walk and bike”. How do you read reports that show that there are some pedestrian fatalities every year, and several orders of magnitude more injuries than that, and conclude that the article is wrong.

    The authors of the research paper believe that it was a very tiny number…

    As a percentage of overall fatalities caused by cars, yes, that’s certainly true. It’s not like the article is hiding this “A 1995 NHTSA report [PDF] found that the number of right-on-red fatalities was relatively small”

    It seems like the problem isn’t that the article is poorly researched, but that you think it’s making a much stronger claim than it actually is. It’s not claiming that banning RTOR is a silver bullet. It’s saying that RTOR has a cost in fatalities and injuries, especially in dense urban environments, and that (in a time when cities are increasingly adopting Vision Zero policies) a law that demonstrably causes harm—including some fatalities—to pedestrians for marginal gain for drivers is something that we should seriously consider changing.

    (And that’s even before considering the fact that, as the article alludes to, the arguments for trading people’s safety for saving some gas have changed substantially since the ’70s, in ways that make the benefits even more marginal. No gas crisis, increasingly efficient cars including electric cars that do essentially nothing while idling, changing traffic patterns in cities, etc.)

  • fdtutf

    I expect motorists to obey the law rather than thinking they’re above it and can make their own laws, and it is amazing you don’t. That’s the real problem, but it isn’t what you want to fix.

  • DisqusNYC

    An excerpt from my comment on https://usa.streetsblog.org/2018/01/16/the-high-priesthood-of-transportation-engineering-has-a-new-leader/

    Is this location an argument for right turn on red in NYC? Forgive me if I’m way off base and let’s stay focused on this issue.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turn_on_red

    I’m glad to see this post. Thanks for focusing on this issue.

  • jcwconsult

    I understand your view, some people do believe that way.

    I only want to work on things that are practical and can work, not on theoretical ones that will never work – because they do not account for actual human behavior.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • jcwconsult

    Restricting RTOR at most intersections will not improve safety, the risks are too low.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • fdtutf

    You have an extraordinarily low opinion of motorists, which of course is understandable, given their behavior.

    I believe motorists can be educated and can change their behavior, if the will is there (the will to educate them, that is). Apparently you don’t.

  • jcwconsult

    I have a realistic view that takes account of 75+ years of research by traffic safety experts. Setting laws and enforcement rules that totally violate drivers’ natural behaviors which by years and decades of personal experience shows them the behaviors are safe – does not and will not change those behaviors. It leads only to frustrated planners trying to impose rules that cannot and will not work – and then sometimes to predatory enforcement for profits that gives most tickets to safe drivers who endangered absolutely no one. It is a lost cause system, and it is baffling why anyone would support it (with the possible exception of the officials who get to spend the predatory enforcement revenue.)

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • fdtutf

    Thanks for the confirmation.

  • jcwconsult

    You are welcome. Perhaps now you will reconsider your views and work toward improving safety with practical solutions that can actually function. The NMA would like to see some of today’s problems improved and fixed – for the benefit of all road users. And it is possible if the non-effective methods and the predatory for-profit methods can be excluded.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • Chris_Kez

    I’m thinking maybe I’ll start carrying a whistle for just these kinds of occasions.

  • fdtutf

    Sorry, I’m not that morally bankrupt. Nice try, though.

  • jcwconsult

    You are of course free to pursue things that do not work and lead to for-profit enforcement that does not improve safety. I prefer to advocate for things that work, improve safety, and avoid predatory for-profit enforcement to enrich corrupt officials.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • fdtutf

    I elect not to view approaches that get pedestrians killed as a “thing that works.” You are of course free to take the opposite, morally bankrupt view.

  • Amerisod

    Where there is high pedestrian traffic, drivers are more likely to be looking for pedestrians before turning right on red. But where there is less pedestrian traffic, they are likely to glance left and hit the gas, never bothering to check for pedestrians. Right on red doesn’t work well where there is low pedestrian traffic either.

  • Chilly8

    I never turn right on red light, I don’t care how many cars behind me I have to hold up.

    Just like I never turn left during the “permissive” phase of these permissive/protected signals.

    I put safety first, I don’t care who behind me does not like it.

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  • Jamie

    I haven’t had any super close calls, but a couple of times turning right on red in busy downtown traffic, it did occur to me that if someone had stepped off the curb at the wrong time, I possibly could have hit them…very scary and I need to be extra, extra careful.

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  • Jay Jackson

    I discounted it when I read “legal right turns” [are allowed]…”urban Boston”. Yeah, I live and work in Boston. They are not allowed here. If he can’t get that basic fact right, it’s hard to believe anything more complex.

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