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.

  • From what I understand, RTOR is not allowed by default in Boston. Every intersection has the sign posted, it is only allowed by exception

  • Vooch

    This is going to be a difficult to win until the culture changes a bit more. Perhaps in 5 years.

    I suggest focusing energies on adding bump outs at intersections. Stealth. 🙂

  • Jesse

    Seriously. My beef with RTOR is the expectation that it creates in the driver to not come to a full stop and yield to pedestrians on the turn. “Am I going to get run over?” is a conscious thought I’ve had a lot in walking in RTOR cities. In Jacksonville (where else but Florida?) I even had someone cut me off at an intersection then lean out the window and start yelling at me for being there.

  • crazytrainmatt

    I had heard anecdotally that was Boston’s response to the federal mandate in the 70s, but I see no trace of it now.

    What Boston does have is incredibly unfriendly pedestrian scramble cycles rather than giving the walk sign concurrently with the green light. That, and lots of green arrows, channelized intersections, and split crossings where you are guaranteed a red for one side or the other. Boston should be the most walkable city in the US, yet on foot it’s abundantly obvious the important people get around in cars.

  • Jeff

    Living in NYC, I often think to myself that it can’t get any worse when it comes to being a pedestrian. Then I visit another US city and wonder why motorists are failing to yield to me in the crosswalk from not one but _two_ directions, and I remember, “Ah, right. Right-on-red.”

  • Mike

    Many drivers from (I’m assuming) out of town either don’t know that there’s a rule in NYC or don’t care. They’ll do it anyway.

  • newkai

    That’s related to why NYC has no RTOR by default. The city was broke in the 70s and basically responded to the mandate with “Um… We can’t afford to put up signs at 99% of our intersections”.

  • newkai

    The few signs that exist are easy to miss.

  • Mike

    And it’s not like signs always work on drivers.

  • Jason

    I’d add that it’s probably worse to have right on red AND curb street parking than it is to have either one alone. There are plenty of intersections I can think of where even if a driver is completely pulled into the crosswalk, that parked cars mean it’s still not possible for them to see whether it’s safe for them to turn. It’s a very blatant example of bad driver behavior being both caused and exacerbated by bad design decisions.

  • thielges

    Instead of solving this issue with legislation, why not address the built environment? Decreasing corner radii both slows down cars making a turn as well as reduces the crosswalk distance for pedestrians. It is RTOR “after stop” though of course most drivers tend to roll through “stops”. Reducing the corner radius at least forces a slow down and reduces the time pedestrians are exposed in the crosswalk.
    By far the worst intersections that have extra large corner radii or porkchops that seem to say “don’t even bother slowing down. Come on through at full speed!”. Start with those intersections first.

  • thielges

    Yup and I’m one of those scofflaw out of towners. Before reading this article I wasn’t aware that RTOR was not allowed in NYC. Yes, I’ve driven in Manhattan (don’t ask why!) and if there’s a next time then hopefully I’ll remember to obey this law.

  • HayBro

    And super expensive. Each one costs at least $50,000 and can easily be over $100,000…

  • HayBro

    I’m not a fan of RTOR but you cannot assume that 100% of collisions with pedestrians that happen during RTOR will disappear if you prohibit them. They may just become collisions with other pedestrians during right turns on green.

  • bettybarcode

    Been almost creamed many times by drivers blowing through intersections to make right-on-reds.

    Sincere question: you are trying to cross the street and you have the right of way because there is a red light or stop sign. But the driver signaling a right turn is looking only to their left for a break in traffic. You are on their right. How are you supposed to get their attention to avoid becoming a “But officer, she came out nowhere” statistic? Pound on their hood?

  • joechoj

    Looming ahead is a split in traffic laws for bikes & cars. Roadways are governed by car-centric rules & laws, and this is a good example of a behavior that’s much more acceptable (in terms of consequences) for a bike than a car.

    I’d love to see a rollout of standard signage targeted at bikes, at the ubiquity level of car-oriented signage. Even to cyclists, the roads feel like they belong to cars, and this has to change.

  • ESSKAYARE

    not if you’re just putting down a few plastic bollards

  • thielges

    In that and similar “looking the other way” scenarios I avoid entering the collision zone until I get the driver’s attention. Sometimes that involves hollering and crazy hand waving. Though I dislike the delay and looking like a fool, sometimes you just have to look out for Number One. This can be safely done without ceding the ROW in most circumstances and is the reality of allowing incompetent, inattentive drivers on the road.

  • 1980Gardener

    Agreed. A red light should mean stop, not pause, for both drivers and cyclists. It is simply too dangerous as a pedestrian to not have an expectation of safety when crossing.

  • agvs

    I know it’s not really much help, but the driver you’re describing is committing two traffic infractions: 1) Failing to come to a complete stop at a red light before making a turn 2) Making a turn without looking in the direction of travel. Cops are terrible about enforcing these regulations. If they did it more often, we’d be safer, regardless of the right-turn laws.

  • Rene

    As a cyclist, I think the issue with “right turn on red” also includes cyclists and pedestrians not taking turns, not yielding and not demonstrating common sense tegarding their own personal welfare.

    Eliminating right turn on red will not eliminate those who sneak up on cars just as they are turning. And yes, I understand the perspective presented here, and have been “right turned” onto freeway on ramps when I did have the right of way. Keep in mind that when driving a car, you have to stop or slow when the car in front of you turns into a driveway. So it isn’t always clear who really has the right of way between a car and a bike. So, don’t be the Accident.

    Drivers need to look out for us, and we need to look out for us, as well as communicate a cooperative spirit with everyone on the road, as opposed to entitled all the time.

  • Keith P.

    The problem is not RTOR, the problem is people not following the rules, something most cyclists are well-acquainted with. Education for all road users is the answer, not a ban.

  • Andrew

    I don’t think you understand what it means to yield. (Taking turns has nothing to do with it.)

  • disqus_1pvtRUVrlr

    Precisely. I respect Bill Schueltheiss, but RTOR is a tool in the toolbox. We should give it more scrutiny and employ RTOR prohibitions more than we typically do, but by holding a longer queue of vehicles waiting to turn on green, then you are potentially increasing the number of conflicts with pedestrians when they are released at the same time. You can mitigate that with a leading pedestrian interval, but not eliminate it. So it needs to be carefully considered, and can even be restricted by time of day.

    I long assumed RTOR was responsible for a significant number of crashes, but not so. And yes, while disproportionately affecting peds and bicyclists, the total numbers are still very small. Thus it needs to be a targeted solution, not a de facto solution.

  • disqus_1pvtRUVrlr

    That’s more a lack of pedestrian safety culture and respect, and if someone is that aggressive and hostile I don’t think the lack of RTOR will make much difference. I’ve had people literally foaming at the mouth for having the audacity to cross when they were trying to turn on green.

  • Jesse

    That’s true too. In cities without much of a pedestrian culture I do feel pressured to clear the crosswalk quickly lest the driver become impatient. On a slightly unrelated note, I believe that part of the support for “petextrian” laws comes from the impatience of drivers waiting at lights for people to cross. Just anecdotally, I always hear this complaint about people in the crosswalk with their “heads buried in their phones” not paying any attention. Attention to what exactly? If you have the right of way, why should the burden of attentiveness be on you? I think the attention referred to is attention to the fact that you’re preventing a driver from turning so hurry up!

  • Gene Parmesan

    My favorite thing is to turn left on red. Occasionally you notice a wide eyed look on a pedestrian wondering what the hell I am doing. Not everyone is aware that you can make left turns on red at the intersection of 2 one-way streets. I live in a city with many one-way streets.

  • jcwconsult

    The 1995 NHTSA Report to Congress showed that right on red turns were involved in only six one-hundredths of one percent (0.06% or 0.0006) of crashes with injuries or fatalities. This action is almost always safe. It should continue to be legal to reduce air pollution, noise pollution, wasted fuel, wasted time, excess wear on vehicles, etc. – all the reasons it became legal in the 1970s.

    There is a very simple and inexpensive engineering solution to improve pedestrian safety in central business districts with many pedestrians. The pedestrians are given a few seconds lead in their WALK signals before the parallel traffic lanes get green lights. This lets the pedestrian flow get established first to take precedence. Chicago uses it with good effect in many of their downtown areas.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • ray allen

    Many of the No Turn on Red signs in my city are faded or covered in road grime, so I emailed a suggestion for a No Turn on Red sign that combines a traffic signal with an illuminated red light and a slashed turn arrow to my local DOT to use in place of the text based signs that everyone either misses or ignores.

    My local DOT’s response was that they couldn’t use the type of sign that I was suggesting because it isn’t in the US Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD). I read the MUTCD, and found a section authorizing the use of ‘experimental’ signs, which means that my local DOT could have asked the Feds for permission to use my suggestions.

    Since my local DOT isn’t willing to use anything that isn’t “approved”, it’s time to send the suggested sign to the Feds to see if they will add it as an optional sign.

  • Stephen Simac

    It can take years to get an “experimental” sign approved for specific uses, no matter how improved and universal the design. A traffic engineer in California got one approved for the coastal bike route in N. CA.so it is possible, but it took him three years as a CalTrans employee. I tried to get my Share the Road sign approved through Fed DOT in the early 80’s but ran out of steam without official resources.

  • Stephen Simac

    I’m not sure if 1995 statistics are still valid, since taller vehicles (SUV’s and trucks) have become much more prevalent. They are far more likely to kill or seriously injure pedestrians in collisions and seem to make them invisible, possibly due to hoods blocking their sight lines. The problem is when drivers are turning right, whether on red or stop signs they tend to only look left for oncoming traffic, so the “right hook” is common. The “left cross” when they hit pedestrians or wrong way cyclists to their left when turning while looking for oncoming traffic to their right is also. I designed a sign Look Twice for One Less Car to educate drivers to look both ways for cyclists and pedestrians. Hasn’t really caught on.

  • Ian Turner

    I would rather keep RTOR and use camera enforcement to ensure that motorists make a full and complete stop before the stop bar before turning.

  • mckillio

    How do you plan on educating all drivers? We can’t even properly educate them when they’re initially trained for driving, what makes you think we can better educate them later?

  • jcwconsult

    Those are good questions to ask. More recent data from LA and DC shows right on red crashes are still a very tiny fraction of the total. Particularly in dense traffic, it IS necessary to “look twice” for almost all possible dangerous situations. For central business districts with high pedestrian counts, the leading WALK signal is a simple and pretty safe solution. I visit Chicago frequently and the reality for right on red turns is you often have to wait for the pedestrians’ DON’T WALK signal near the end of the cycle to make the right turn on red.

    It also helps A LOT if pedestrians look up from their cell phones before entering the street – at crosswalks and everywhere else.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • It’s not even a matter of education. Drivers know the rules. But they don’t accept the idea that they ought to follow the rules.

    Drivers feel entitled to break any rule; and they have not one little pang of guilt when they are caught in the act. This is why drivers who are caught stopping ahead of the stopping line say “What’s the f-ing difference?”, and why drivers stopping in the bike lane say “Just go around.” And it’s why they don’t give a damn about a pedestrian’s right of way in an intersection.

    The concept of following the rules just doen’t enter into their minds, because drivers are dangerous sociopaths.

  • Andre Mayer

    The feds basically forced everyone except NYC to accept RTOR, in order to conserve gasoline. As I recall, Boston then started to put “No RTOR” signs on every intersection, but was called out on it.

  • VA Bicycling Fed.

    Worse than RTOR are the large-radius corners that allow drivers to whip around at speed. Cutting the radius down can at least slow them to a safe crawl, with time to react to pedestrians and cyclists, whether the light is red or green.

  • tomwest

    Of course it’s only a tiny percentage of the total, because most of the time cars aren’t passing through intersections, and pedestrians aren’t crossing the road.

    What matters is whether crossing where RTOR is allowed is more dangerous than crossing where it isn’t.

  • tomwest

    “Drivers know the rules” [citation needed]

  • Please don’t make the assertion that drivers don’t know that a red light means stop. The truth is that they don’t care that a red light means stop.

  • tomwest

    Right turns on red require a crossing pedestrian to look in three directions at once:
    1) To their left, for vehicles making a right turn on red
    2) Ahead, for vehicles making the right turn on green
    3) Behind them, for vehicles making the left turn (on green).

    Oh, and all of those vehicles may be driven by people who don’t look for pedestrians at crosswalks.

  • Stuart

    While that would help, it doesn’t address the fact that the attention of a motorist turning right on red is focused almost exclusively to the left (since that’s the direction they would be hit from), whereas turning right on green they can focus all their attention on the more vulnerable road users around them.

  • Stuart

    The 1995 NHTSA Report to Congress showed that right on red turns were involved in only six one-hundredths of one percent (0.06% or 0.0006) of crashes with injuries or fatalities. This action is almost always safe.

    It’s interesting that you picked the smallest number you could find, when more relevant numbers are readily available in the report. The percentage when restricted to crashes at intersections is an order of magnitude higher. Same if you restrict to just pedestrian/cyclist crashes.

    And the study covers only a few states, which don’t include dense urban areas where these kind of accidents are most likely.

    Now you may say that half a percent is still a small number, but the other way to look at it is that over 400 people were injured or kill in a three year period in just three states. And you are weighing that against things like “wasted time” and “wear and tear”. Seems pretty callous.

    to reduce air pollution, noise pollution, wasted fuel, wasted time, excess wear on vehicles, etc.

    By what percentage would air pollution, noise pollution, fuel consumption, travel time, and vehicle wear increase without RTOR?

    Multiplying the thing you are willing to write off by the percentage, while listing the things you care more about without any impact numbers, is intellectually dishonest.

  • Stuart

    the leading WALK signal is a simple and pretty safe solution.

    It’s an improvement, but it doesn’t help when drivers roll through crosswalks without looking to the right (which I see regularly). A pedestrian could enter the crosswalk at any time.

    It also helps A LOT if pedestrians look up from their cell phones before entering the street – at crosswalks and everywhere else.

    If you consider victim-blaming to be a solution to traffic engineering, sure. Pedestrians have the right of way when crossing in a crosswalk with the light. The way in which looking up “helps” is that they may be able to avoid drivers who are violating their right of way.

    I am regularly unable to cross when I have the right of way because an idiot in a car is fixedly staring to their left while partially blocking the crosswalk, and I can tell they will suddenly accelerate as soon as no car is coming from their left. The fact that you seem to think my not crossing is a reasonable solution to the RTOR problem created by drivers who don’t have the right of way says a lot about how much you value driver throughput over the rights of others on the road.

  • Bernard Finucane

    RTOR used to be the law in East Germany too, but after reunification it was banned on almost all intersections. But a few remained in the East, and a few came to the West.

  • jcwconsult

    That is obvious for RTOR, but it isn’t the key question. You could virtually guarantee pedestrian safety by banning all cars entirely, but the negatives would be pretty large.

    RTOR reduces air pollution, noise pollution, wasted fuel, wasted time, excess wear on vehicles, congestion, etc. These are all valid goals for traffic controls.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • jcwconsult

    All traffic engineering is a balance of MANY factors. Perfect safety for pedestrians and cyclists can be achieved by have no moving vehicles, but that isn’t practical except for small pedestrian precincts.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • Stuart

    Way to dodge the question. You hand-waved away people’s lives by focusing on a small percentage, but aren’t willing to say how much, exactly RTOR saves in the other things you listed.

    Is it perhaps because you suspect that number is so small that your argument would fall apart?

  • jcwconsult

    Anyone who read my post knows victim-blaming is not the issue. NOT looking at where you are walking is just as idiotically dangerous as not looking where you are driving. It is easy to be “dead right” when you have the right of way as either a driver or pedestrian – but by not paying attention you fail to avoid the danger when the other driver is doing something wrong.

    As an aside, several NHTSA studies note in about half the cases of pedestrian fatalities, the pedestrian made a contributory mistake of some kind that might have prevented the crash.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • jcwconsult

    NHTSA and Congress thought those elements warranted the requirement to permit RTOR at most intersections. Traffic engineering is always a compromise of many factors.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

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