Reconsidering Right on Red: The Debate Intensifies Amid Pedestrian Casualties

by Sophia Chen
Right on Red Policy

While en route to a cycling safety event in the Lakeview district of Chicago this past June, Sophee Langerman suffered a collision with an automobile executing a right turn at a red signal. Although Langerman, who was ushering her bicycle through the crosswalk at the time, was fortunate to evade grave injuries, her bicycle was not as lucky, requiring significant repairs. This incident further solidifies her stance against a widely accepted traffic rule permitting drivers to make a right turn at red lights after halting—a rule prevalent across US cities for many years.

The alarming uptick in pedestrian and cyclist casualties has sparked various policy revisions and infrastructural developments. However, the proposition to revoke the right-on-red privilege has sparked considerable debate. Some urban centers in the United States are already acting on the matter, with Washington, D.C.’s City Council endorsing a prohibition on the practice, set to commence in 2025. Chicago’s newly elected Mayor, Brandon Johnson, hinted at limitations on these turns in his preliminary plan, though further details are pending. Ann Arbor, a university city in Michigan, has imposed a prohibition on right turns at red lights within its central region.

Cities like San Francisco have actively taken steps toward outlawing the maneuver throughout the municipality, and others, including Los Angeles, Seattle, and Denver, are considering similar bans.

Langerman, 26, holds a firm belief that drivers should not be left to their discretion in deciding when it’s safe to turn on red, emphasizing the distractions and hurriedness that often impair judgment.

Conversely, Jay Beeber, an executive at the National Motorists Association, which champions drivers’ rights, denounces the outright ban as a misguided solution, unlikely to enhance street safety. He references forthcoming research from the association, which, upon reviewing California’s accident data from 2011 to 2019, discovered an exceedingly low incidence of pedestrian and cyclist fatalities due to right turns on red.

Beeber perceives the burgeoning movement as an initiative to aggravate driving conditions to dissuade people from using cars. Safety proponents, however, argue that official crash data may not fully capture the risk, suggesting an underreporting of such incidents.

The United States, distinct from many other nations, typically permits right turns during a red light. This policy emerged during the 1970s’ energy crisis, with the government cautioning states of potential federal funding repercussions if they forbade right on red, barring exceptional clearly marked situations. Despite the abandonment of other energy-saving measures like the 55 mph speed limit cap, the right-on-red rule has persisted.

Bill Schultheiss, an engineering director at the Toole Design Group, criticizes the policy as poorly conceived. According to him, while the policy might have been justified during the fuel crisis, it was excessively lauded for its potential benefits without sufficient regard for the resulting dangers.

In contrast to most of the nation, New York City has largely refrained from allowing right on red, particularly in congested areas like Manhattan, well-noted by conspicuous signage. However, this was a departure from the norm until Washington, D.C., opted for change.

Advocates for safety, who supported Washington’s policy shift, are gearing up for pushback, especially if cyclists are permitted to perform the ‘Idaho Stop’, allowing them to proceed at red lights post-stop once safety is confirmed.

Jonathan Kincade from the Washington Area Bicyclists Association argues that public opinion may need to be sacrificed for pedestrian safety, underlining the distinct nature of cars and bikes and their disparate consequences in traffic.

Opponents to the ban suggest it will not only inconvenience drivers but could also hinder the efficiency of public transit and freight services. The United Parcel Service, while not formally choosing a side, instructs drivers to minimize left turns, deemed inefficient.

Priya Sarathy Jones of the Fines and Fees Justice Center expresses concern that sanctions from the bans might disproportionately affect drivers of lower income, who are dependent on vehicular commute due to unaffordable proximate housing. She fears increased red-light enforcement might lead to more surveillance cameras, a sensitive subject in the Chicago area, where the red-light camera program has faced severe criticism and legal challenges.

Jones advocates for road infrastructure enhancement as a more effective measure for reducing accidents, rather than punitive policies.

Despite the absence of recent comprehensive studies on casualties caused by right-turning drivers, a report by the Governors Highway Safety Association indicated an unprecedented number of pedestrian fatalities in 2022, with 7,500 reported deaths, the most since 1981. This surge, encompassing all accidents—not solely those from right on red—has been partially ascribed to the prevalence of larger vehicles.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety determined that pedestrians are significantly more at risk of fatal injuries when hit by a right-turning vehicle, especially if it is a pickup truck or SUV, due to larger blind spots and the force of impact from heavier models.

Mike McGinn, the executive director of America Walks and former Seattle mayor, points to the design of these larger vehicles, which instead of causing pedestrians to roll onto the hood, often knock them down and run over them.

While research directly examining the effects of right-on-red policies may be dated, the findings remain a point of contention for both proponents and adversaries of the ban.

A 1994 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report, incorporating crash data from various states, identified hundreds of injuries and a handful of fatalities resulting from right turns at red. Advocates for the ban note that this analysis predates the increase in larger, more hazardous vehicles on the roads.

Nonetheless, Beeber highlights the California study’s findings, asserting that injuries from such accidents are predominantly minor.

Washington state Senator John Lovick, advocating for a more conservative approach, emphasizes the significance of every life and injury. Despite his proposed bill, aimed at forbidding right on red in proximity to schools and parks, failing to advance, Seattle has adopted a policy to limit right on red with the installation of new traffic signals.

Seattle resident Melinda Kasraie recounts the repercussions of a collision with a right-turning car at a red light, which resulted in her requiring knee replacement surgery and leaving her long-term job. The incident has altered her lifestyle and instilled in her a fear of crossing streets. Her experience underlines the profound impact of a momentary delay for drivers, which can cause life-changing injuries for pedestrians.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Right on Red Policy

What is causing US cities to consider bans on right turns at red lights?

The increase in pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities and injuries is prompting US cities to consider bans on right turns at red lights. These discussions are part of broader policy and infrastructure changes aimed at improving road safety.

What cities have made moves to ban right turns at red lights?

Washington, D.C., has approved a ban on right turns at red that will take effect in 2025. San Francisco leaders have voted to push for a citywide ban. Other cities exploring this change include Los Angeles, Seattle, Denver, and Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Why do some advocates support the ban on right turns at red?

Supporters of the ban argue that allowing right turns at red lights can lead to accidents, as drivers may not always accurately judge the safety of turning amidst pedestrian and bicycle traffic. They also cite the difficulty in enforcing the current laws, which require drivers to come to a complete stop before turning and yield to other road users.

What are the arguments against banning right turns at red?

Opponents of the ban, such as Jay Beeber of the National Motorists Association, argue that right turns on red are not a significant cause of pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities. They suggest that such a ban could make driving more difficult without substantially improving safety.

What does the historical context of the ‘right on red’ rule in the US suggest?

The ‘right on red’ rule was widely adopted during the 1970s in response to an energy crisis, with the intention of reducing idling at intersections to conserve fuel. Critics now say the policy does not consider the full consequences on road safety.

How might right-on-red bans affect different groups of drivers?

There are concerns that penalties from right-on-red bans could disproportionately affect lower-income drivers who might be more dependent on driving due to housing and public transit availability. Moreover, there are worries about increased surveillance and ticketing through red light cameras.

Have there been any recent studies on the impact of right-on-red policies?

There are no comprehensive, recent nationwide studies on the impact of right-on-red policies. However, older studies are still used in the debate, and data from specific states, like the upcoming study from California, are often cited in these discussions.

More about Right on Red Policy

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Tom Sanders November 4, 2023 - 4:57 pm

this is really concerning stuff when you think about it, rising numbers in pedestrian deaths its something we gotta take seriously, can’t believe some cities are only just now thinking about banning right on red

Jessica P. November 4, 2023 - 10:43 pm

i read somewhere that the bigger vehicles are part of the probelm, those big trucks and SUVs have such blind spots, no wonder the accidents are up

Karen D November 5, 2023 - 5:23 am

My brother was hit last year by someone turning right on red, thankfully he was ok but it really shook him up and the driver just drove off! something needs to change

Mike87 November 5, 2023 - 5:24 am

It’s not just about banning right on red there’s gotta be more enforcement too, see drivers rolling through stop signs all the time without a care

Ed_the_driver November 5, 2023 - 6:14 am

not all drivers are bad we stop we look but these bans seem like a knee-jerk reaction, the roads are for everyone and we need better solutions that work for all not just restrictions


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