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It would be the first to do so in the U.S. in over 80 years. But other places are looking at similar restrictions to improve street safety.
Washington, D.C. officials are slamming the brakes on allowing drivers to take right turns at red lights.
Making the turns will become illegal at most intersections in the district, under legislation the city council there passed this week. The new law would make D.C. the nation's first major city to outlaw the practice citywide since New York banned it in 1937.
But several other cities are considering restrictions on the maneuver, as the number of traffic deaths—particularly for cyclists and pedestrians—has climbed in recent years. Proponents of the ban hope that the change in law will prevent hurried and often distracted drivers from hitting people walking or riding through signalized intersections.
If the legislation becomes law, the changes would take effect in 2025.
“Right turn on red, as it is implemented in most American cities, creates a pretty hostile environment for people outside of cars, whether you’re on foot in a crosswalk or on your bike,” said Colin Browne, communications director for the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, which supported the change.
“As a pedestrian, you have a light to cross the street, but you have a driver who’s inching out into the intersection looking in exactly the opposite direction to see if there are any cars coming. So you [as a pedestrian] have to decide: Is this person going to see me or not?” Browne said.
The increased number of distractions for drivers—from cell phones to interactive displays on their dashboards—only increases the problem, he said.
Browne knows the hazard all too well. A driver going right on red hit him while he was crossing the street, although, fortunately, at low speed.
The city government in Washington, D.C., has explored the problem for several years. In 2018, it prohibited right turns on red at 100 intersections and noticed major improvements in driver behavior.
A study from the District Department of Transportation found that vehicle-to-vehicle conflicts dropped by 97% after the “no turn on red” signs were installed. The number of times drivers failed to yield to pedestrians when the light was red dropped by 92%. Drivers even did a better job yielding to pedestrians when their light was green, with violations dropping by 59%.
The new signs did, however, end up with 30% more drivers encroaching on crosswalks. The DDOT researchers said that was likely because drivers started to make a turn on red and then realized it was illegal, so they ended up stuck in the crosswalk.
While behaviors improved overall, there were some notable exceptions. In four of the 252 approaches to intersections that DDOT monitored, drivers became more likely to enter crosswalks with pedestrians during green lights.
“A cursory evaluation shows that the locations with increased conflicts are capacity-constrained intersections, suggesting that as drivers become impatient, they will be less likely to yield to pedestrians,” the DDOT researchers noted.
Similarly, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency posted “no turn on red” signs at 50 intersections in the city’s Tenderloin district last fall. It found that 92% of drivers followed the new restrictions, and the number of vehicles blocking crosswalks dropped by 70%.
“Prohibiting turns on red is a low-cost measure that can help keep crosswalks clear and reduce close calls,” the agency concluded. “Given initial results of this evaluation, SFMTA staff are recommending expanding [no turn on red] restrictions to business activity districts where speed limits are being reduced under new state authority. Further expansion may be considered in the future.”
In Michigan, the Ann Arbor City Council voted this week to ban right turns on red at 50 intersections downtown, where college students frequently cross. Raleigh, North Carolina, is considering banning right turns on red in its downtown to protect pedestrians.
Not everyone is convinced that blanket bans are a good idea. The civil engineering company Vanasse Hangen Brustlin, Inc. conducted a study for the city of Richmond, Virginia in 2020 that warned that banning the turns citywide or in specific zones would delay city buses, increase fuel consumption and result in more air pollution.
“The city of Richmond currently has a solid, scientific system grounded in engineering principles for identifying site-specific locations for [right turn on red] prohibitions using the [federal] guidelines, engineering studies and engineering judgment,” the VHB consultants wrote.
They added that right turns on red make up a relatively low share of severe crashes. “In fact, right turn maneuvers are considered one of the safest maneuvers from a crash severity perspective at an intersection,” they wrote.
Meanwhile, automobile groups and civil rights advocates have raised concerns about how the laws would be enforced, and red-light cameras in particular have been controversial almost everywhere they’ve been installed.
But no organized opposition objected to Washington, D.C.’s new legislation. The capital city has gone the farthest so far in curbing the practice, which became legal throughout the United States following the 1970s oil embargo that prompted public officials to look for ways to save fuel.
The district’s plan would allow its transportation department to make exceptions for intersections where safety would be improved with right turns on red. But the default would be that the turns are banned, while now the assumption is that they are allowed.
The new prohibition comes as the district has implemented many pedestrian- and cyclist-friendly policies in recent years.
The same legislation with the ban on red-light turns also allows cyclists to use the “Idaho stop” at stop signs, essentially allowing them to roll through the intersection to prevent conflicts with stopped vehicles.
The district has also installed “bike boxes” at intersections, where cyclists can wait ahead of queued vehicles; leading pedestrian intervals to let people walk into a crosswalk before cars start moving; zebra stripe patterns at most crosswalks; and ubiquitous curb ramps with tactile warning surfaces.
Brown, from the cyclist group, said those improvements work together with policies like the new turning law to make the district’s streets “less hostile.”
“In isolation, [the new law] is not going to be vastly transformative, but as part of a suite of things, it makes it easier and more comfortable for folks to get around on foot or on a bike,” he said.
Still, the numbers of pedestrians and cyclists killed in the district continues to rise.
“D.C. is not doing enough to keep people outside of cars safe,” Brown said. “On the other hand, D.C. is doing a lot more than many other American cities.”
Daniel C. Vock is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.