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.

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

  1. RTOR is for cars that are at or reach a red light before turning right. True on the more efficient and quieter modern cars. Another reason for RTOR is to reduce congestion to increase the total throughput per unit time – a key factor engineers must look at in crowded cities.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  2. Buttons like that would be feasible. The NO RTOR signs are already approved for engineers to use. RTOR requires turning drivers to look for any conflicts with pedestrians, cyclists or other vehicles. If you are turning RTOR, you do NOT have the right of way if there is a conflict.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  3. Better sidewalks without obstructions are a very good idea. Speed table crosswalks are applicable in some cases.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  4. Safer driving habits are the answer for me – along with proper engineering.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  5. Well designed pedestrian precincts with access to nearby parking for vehicles arriving from some distances away work very well.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  6. NHTSA makes many decisions based on putting an arbitrary dollar value on various types of crashes – property only, minor injury, major injury, or fatality. If a change is $$ positive it is often recommended or mandated. If not, not.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  7. Poorer driver training versus most of the rest of the developed world is TRUE. Many US drivers do have a contemptuous attitude toward many traffic laws because they are tired of deliberately faulty traffic engineering that is then used in for-profit enforcement.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  8. Buttons like that would be feasible.

    I didn’t say they weren’t feasible, I said they wouldn’t help.

    RTOR requires turning drivers to look for any conflicts with pedestrians, cyclists or other vehicles. If you are turning RTOR, you do NOT have the right of way if there is a conflict.

    Describing what the legal requirements are, which I obviously already know, is not a useful response to a description of the actual problem that exists in reality.

    Try getting out of your car a little more often and observe drivers in the real world turning right. Watch how much of their attention is, in general, directed to the left (where the cars that could injure them would come from) vs. in all the other directions (like to the right, where pedestrians they can injure or kill but are not a threat to their safety would come from). Watch how often they roll through a crosswalk to get a better view without even glancing ahead or to the right.

  9. Distracted walking is just as dangerous, maybe more so, as distracted driving – because the pedestrian is more vulnerable.

    Why am I not surprised that your definition of “dangerous” only considers personal danger, not the danger posed to others.

  10. If a change is $$ positive it is often recommended or mandated.

    Making that numeric evaluation would require quantifying the benefits. You know, that thing that I keep asking about and you keep dodging even to the point of not being willing to acknowledge that quantifying the benefits matters.

  11. Many US drivers do have a contemptuous attitude toward many traffic laws because they are tired of deliberately faulty traffic engineering that is then used in for-profit enforcement.

    What evil, “deliberately faulty” “for-profit” enforcement scheme are drivers making a noble protest against when they show contempt for RTOR requirements to come to a complete stop before the crosswalk and then yield to all pedestrians?

    An article about drivers injuring and killing people by failing to properly yield during an RTOR is a pretty poor choice for a location to try to make this argument.

  12. I would have to disagree since the on-demand NTOR signs are illuminated, they tend to be more visible that flat painted ones.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  13. Not having a crash is a shared responsibility – with what should always be the assumption that the other party may make a mistake. It is obvious mistakes by the pedestrian tend to be more dangerous to the pedestrian than mistakes by drivers are to the drivers.

    Please be realistic.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  14. As I said earlier, the NMA does not have the ability to quantify the dollar value of items like wasted fuel, wear on vehicles, etc. NHTSA could do this if they wanted to. NHTSA does use the numeric data on crash costs as part of a decision to mandate something – or not. I don’t know their current criteria.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  15. The long term use of motorists as open wallets by many jurisdictions makes some contemptuous of many traffic laws. This should NOT affect failing to yield for pedestrians, cyclists or other vehicles that have the right of way.

    It probably does affect some cases where there is a dedicated right turn lane (cannot go straight) that should use a Yield protocol at red lights for the through lanes, not a Stop protocol. The US has a fetish for unnecessary full stops that would be Yield or Give Way protocol areas in most of Europe.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  16. It is obvious mistakes by the pedestrian tend to be more dangerous to the pedestrian than mistakes by drivers are to the drivers.

    Once again you are (deliberately?) missing the point. The fact that you think that when discussing how dangerous a driver behavior is the only thing you are considering is how dangerous it is to the driver, as you just repeated, is exactly the problem.

    Most people would consider the potential to hurt or kill other people to be part of the definition of “dangerous”. By not doing that, you can conveniently downplay the danger drivers pose to everyone around them.

  17. NMA does not have the ability to quantify the dollar value of items like wasted fuel, wear on vehicles, etc.

    Which, again, doesn’t stop you from being sure that the benefits outweigh the costs. You’re just going in circles here.

  18. When you deliberately mis-read or twist my post, it makes meaningful dialogue impossible.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  19. This should NOT affect failing to yield for pedestrians, cyclists or other vehicles that have the right of way.

    And yet a discussion of drivers failing to do that very thing is where you brought up your argument as an excuse for bad driver behavior.

  20. I genuinely have no idea what you are talking about. What am I mis-reading or twisting?

    Are you saying that you aren’t defining “dangerous” to mean only personal danger in the sentence “Distracted walking is just as dangerous, maybe more so, as distracted driving”?

  21. I never excuse bad driving behavior – with one exception. If the traffic law says X and it should say Y for equivalent or better safety, then it is – by definition – not bad behavior to act Y.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  22. I agree we are going in circles on that point, only a major organization like NHTSA has the budget to quantify it. What is clear to me is that your point of view to assume the costs do not outweigh the benefits. You have not done the research either.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  23. What is clear to me is that your point of view to assume the costs do not outweigh the benefits.

    I’m glad that’s clear to you, given that I explicitly said exactly that a few posts up in this subthread.

    I’m not ashamed of having a default assumption that human life is more valuable than saving some gas and increasing vehicle throughput a little. I’m not the one trying to pretend that my decision is based on quantitative evaluation when it’s not. I’m not the one trying to massively overstate the impact of RTOR by pretending it’s comparable to banning all travel by car to distract from the actual tradeoffs involved in this instance.

  24. I will try it once more – and stop replying if you don’t get it. I said (WITH ADDED EMPHASIS )

    “It is obvious mistakes BY THE PEDESTRIAN tend to be more dangerous TO THE PEDESTRIAN than mistakes BY THE DRIVERS are TO THE DRIVERS.”

    If a pedestrian makes a mistake contributing to a crash with a driver, the pedestrian will almost always suffer a much worse physical outcome than the driver will suffer.

    If a driver makes a mistake contributing to a crash with a pedestrian, the driver will usually suffer no physical consequences. (They may suffer psychological ones for injuring or killing someone.)

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  25. Yes, I read and understood that. The caps didn’t change anything.

    You said that in reply to a comment where I was reacting to this statement, which you also said (WITH ADDED EMPHASIS, SINCE YOU SEEM TO THINK CAPS WILL HELP):

    Distracted walking IS JUST AS DANGEROUS, maybe more so, as distracted driving

    I’m not trying to misread or twist anything. I can only see two ways to read that:
    1) You are defining “dangerous” in that sentence to mean the total capacity for harm to self or others. If that’s what you mean, then I think you are insane, because it should be obvious that someone not paying attention while driving can injure or kill far more people, far more easily, than someone not paying attention while walking.
    2) You are defining “dangerous” in that sentence to mean only danger to self. This is what I assumed you meant in the first place. Your reply to me, including YOUR OWN CAPS FOR EMPHASIS, seems to be directly confirming that this is indeed what you meant.

    Given that it seems very clear that we both agree that you mean (2), I really don’t see where the claim that I’m twisting your words is coming from.

    Literally my whole point (I’ll try caps again for you, since I’ve said this several times) is that I THINK IT’S SHAMEFUL THAT YOU USE DEFINITION 2 INSTEAD OF DEFINITION 1 when talking distracted driving, because it downplays the very real danger distracted drivers pose to other people.

  26. Chicago installed RTOR enforcement cameras at a bunch of intersections, and a ton of people started getting tickets. One of the local news stations did a report where they gathered like 30 people who swore they had stopped, and then had them watch the video. All 30 had rolled it.

    Hardly scientific, but it shows the central problem. People roll them all the time, and often don’t even pay attention to doing it since it’s so routine.

  27. Ontario licence is more rigorous than what I’ve read about most US states. However, it’s waaaaaay easier than the UK one (which I failed twice).

  28. The problems with this solution are the same as with buttons to demand a walk signal.

    First is accessibility, especially for handicapped.

    Second is also accessibility, as such poles are often surrounded by snow drifts and ice in the winter.

    Third is function. You would have another piece of electronic equipment to maintain.

    Fourth is consistency. We have problems with the few exceptions to no turn on red as it is.

    Fifth is enforcement, which also goes to consistency.

  29. Shared responsibility to not die on the roadway is often missed. The number of deaths from crashes of pedestrians who are turning on a green light are not shown. That is an important data point to this discussion. When do deaths occur; RTOR or GTOR?

  30. If you don’t care that the pedestrian is drunk and walks out and gets killed, I bet you do care if the driver is drunk and hits the pedestrian. That is hypocritical and is why we have the Darwin Awards for stupid people and death. Your moral superiority is a joke. How about personal responsibility? As a walker you are responsible if you walk out drunk, on a red light and wearing black! I saw a homeless guy riding his bike wrong way into oncoming traffic between the turn lane and the straight lane – he is a Darwin Nominee. The only reason I saw the idiot was he was smoking so I saw the glow. The idea that drivers have to avoid idiots all the time if they are drunk, stoned, stupid, breaking laws – now that is absurd – not amoral. Yes, the victim gets what they deserve. If you are drunk driving at 100mph and crash and kill people, would you support that? Why would you support a dumb pedestrian or bike rider doing idiot things? Speaking of moral relativism… LOL. – You have no ethics or morals or PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY. You remind me of the story when the drowning guy says he believes in God and ignores help (or stop lights etc) and then he dies… and blames God for being a believer and God says – I tried to save you with 2 boats and a helicopter. Who is the idiot? It’s the person that died who ignored the laws of man and nature, crosswalks, red lights, etc… Thus my Darwin Award – I nominate you – go walk out – drunk, and eyes closed – jaywalking… you’ll see what happens… yes the victim takes responsibility in life and in death.

  31. The reasons for their attitude are irrelevant, because their attitude endangers other road users.

  32. Without the deliberate for-profit engineering malfeasance, many drivers would have better attitudes. A real example: A sergeant in Livonia, MI looked up the warrants (engineering requirements) for many stop signs he thought were probably installed as speed control devices (not allowed by engineering rules). He removed the illegal ones. In before & after speed studies, the average speeds in those mostly-residential neighborhoods went down.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  33. I’ve been teaching my child the following for crossing the street at signalized intersections when we have the right-of-way before walking:
    * Look left
    * Look right
    * Look left again
    * Look behind you.
    That’s to ensure nobody is getting to run you down by turning right on a red light without seeing you.
    I have had to step back onto the sidewalk because it was obvious the motorist was not intending to stop for me and my toddler countless times.
    It’s time to end ROTR.

  34. Another option I saw again today, and I have seen two different forms of this. The signs say No Turn on Red
    – When Pedestrians Present (or)
    – When Children Present

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  35. The reasons for their attitude are irrelevant, because their attitude endangers other road users.

  36. Ultimately, Darwin and the laws of physics have the right of way – not some law or arrogant walker or bike rider pressing his legal status until they get hit and sue. Blaming the car driver is like blaming the victim. Why not say both for the most part are responsible for the accident. That said, golfing in thunderstorms, swimming in areas of crocodiles, crossing streets blindly without looking for dangerous clouds, crocodiles and cars are AVOIDABLE. Don’t step in front of a car without getting eye contact with the driver and made sure he is stopped. So so simple… but there are lots of idiots living in a LA LA land thinking laws are going to protect them. They don’t. Personal Responsibility and Risk Management. If you don’t want to be killed in a DUI best not drive or walk between 12-2am at night. Yes, you have the right… and sadly the right to die by another’s law breaking behaviors.

  37. One more thing to teach your child. Wait until you get eye contract with the driver and they are stopped. A simple smile and wave works usually. Otherwise, let the dangerous driver pass and try again. Just because you have the legal right of way doesn’t mean you won’t loose if a car or bike hits you. I almost hit a bike rider going right to left on the sidewalk (that timed it perfectly to come around a hedge into my blind spot of my wide right pillar as I inched forward for a right turn.). I had looked right – all clear, then left, then pulled out only to see him cross in front of me and me so I slammed on my brakes. Very scary… I now lean forward and back just so no one is crossing in my blind spot… but this is exactly why accidents happen, he should be on the other side of the street and not on a cross walk and riding carefree in front of a car looking left (not toward him, to turn right.). Simply, get eye contact with all cars before you play this deadly game. I’ve been on both sides of this as a driver and pedestrian… As a bike rider, I wouldn’t illegally ride the wrong way but hey – it LA it happens. I am always open for police chases, cars running red lights, drunk people, crazy homeless breaking every law to try to crash legally or illegally into me. If everyone took self responsibility regardless of who is breaking the law, accidents would drop 50% instantly. Thank you for teaching your child, They will live longer than most entitled parents and others believing in the law before the ultimate law of physics, Darwin, and real life danger.

  38. LOL. You should have gone to law school. I love to see you argue that in court rather than online or CNN. 😉

  39. Really? What a bunch of BS. You are talking legal – i.e. Victim because they had the right of way. We are talking about not becoming a victim and watching out for dangerous situations and adapting quickly to illegal activity – like a car running a red light as you walk across reading your iPhone. The ‘victim’ that gets hit by the red light running car on their iPhone is YES, DEAD. The Non Victim, ALIVE, saw the car run the red light and dove out of the way. These are laws of physics, Darwin, and Nature – most accidents take 2 people. And usually 2 people can avoid it. Sadly, now a days the Victim is always innocent – yes legally – but they died proving it. So yes, is the Victim to blame – maybe… but they have a self responsibility to identify dangerous situations and take action if they don’t. Like continuing to play golf during a thunderstorm and get hit by lighting, or ignoring shark warning signs, or being out late at night with other drunk people 2-4am when most fatal accidents happen… then yes – they chose to put themselves at risk. In other words, a skydiver has 2 parachutes and is more likely to live than a dangerous base jumper with one at low altitude doing dangerous things. Self Responsibility. Motorcyles are dangerous – 1% fatality rate per year. So when you ride, you accept the risk like joining the military. Are all military victims if they die in service? Is that Victim blaming when they volunteered to serve our country? NO. Take Responsibly and protect yourself when you walk, ride, and drive for other dangerous things. Lastly, how about driving or mountain climbing during a major snow storm? When the car driver or hiker gets stuck and dies is that blaming the victim for ignoring the situation i.e. the weather. Most would blame the victim for being reckless or stupid. SO EVERYONE needs to take Responsibility and stop playing the PC victim card 100% of the time. It’s almost never that simple – except for rear end accidents. Though, I’ve seen motorcyclist quickly move their ass when I locked up my trucks brakes because I didn’t see them all in black and late at night. That biker, saved his own life and saved me from hitting him on Sunset Blvd – True Story.

  40. LOL – welcome to the real world. You keep believing that and you will be hit. Best to prevent the accident and move when some stupid driver is braking the laws. I’ll put it simply – always YIELD to bigger Vehicles whether or not you have the legal right away – otherwise you will SUFFER the HIT and Consequences and so will the Driver who might have not seen you, had a medical condition, etc… No one wants to be in an accident but blaming the wrong doer (opposite of blaming the legal victim) is just as crazy in terms of trying to avoid accidents. Point is – many people do NOT take responsibility like you, and jump out without looking on green lights assuming they will be OK… Then they get hit, play the legal victim card, and lawsuits fly… welcome to LA. How about YIELDING instead whether it is right or wrong and saving everyone lots of pain, time and money! Simple solution.

  41. It’s not even a matter of education. Pedestrians and Cyclist know the rules. But they don’t accept the idea that they ought to follow the rules.

    Pedestrians and Cyclist 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 Pedestrians and Cyclist who are caught running through the stopping line say “What’s the f-ing difference?”, and why Pedestrians and Cyclist stopping in the car lane say “Just go around.” And it’s why they don’t give a damn about a drivers right of way in an intersection.

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

  42. LOL. Just don’t fix the pot holes – break all the cars and you car haters win like the Walking Dead. Though, I’ll take Road Warrior any day,

  43. Not this cyclist. I stop at every red light; what’s more, I chastise those cyclist who do not do so.

    However, unlike lawless drivers, whose misbehaviour endangers and terrorises vulnerable road users, bicyclists who choose to ignore the law harm no one but themselves, mainly by giving free ammunition to the type of dishonest person who would assert some kind of equivalency between the perpetrators of traffic violence and the victims of traffic violence.

  44. See, with your sense your humor and creativity, you could have written something funny like that. But you tend to go overboard (in your writing style), rambling and throwing punches in all directions. You gotta focus, tighten it up, pick an angle, make sure it’s your best angle, and then craft a sick, twisted, little story around it. If you write something funny, I’ll let you know. But these Charles Manson manifestos aren’t connecting with people. Being twisted is fine. But being a bad writer completely diffuses whatever effect you were hoping to have. You have a lot of pent-up rage, you just need to channel it into something more compelling.

  45. Well – LOL – glass half full or half empty. My point is – if you want to live and not join Darwin Awards – you must always YIELD to bigger vehicles when walking or riding whether or not you have the right away. That is the SAFE AND SMART ANSWER. PERIOD. When I drive or ride a motorcycle – I have saved my ass twice by – guess what – looking both ways – WHEN a car ran a red light and would have hit me.

  46. The reasons are only irrelevant if you NEVER want to see them get fixed. I want them fixed, and it is amazing you don’t.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  47. If, by well-designed, you mean an incredibly limited number of vehicles that minimize or even eliminate all danger to pedestrians, then sure.

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