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Banning turns-on-red is an exciting first step to taking back our crosswalks

We’ve all been there. You get the walk signal and step off the curb. But the person driving keeps inching towards you. You try to make eye contact, but they are looking left for a break in traffic, still inching forward. They don’t even know you are in front of their grill. Will they see you before they hit you? Should I dive back to the relative safety of the sidewalk? Should I yell Midnight Cowboy style?

tumblr_inline_nuefxpbveb1tww8x4_500Joking aside, turns-on-red are dangerous, especially in dense areas with lots of foot traffic. The city says 143 people walking have been hit by people making turns in just the past three years (usually these are right-turns-on-red, though one-way intersections often allow left-turns-on-red). And though turn-on-red collisions are typically low-speed, any collision can be dangerous especially for our youngest and oldest neighbors as well as people with mobility challenges. People can get knocked over, have their feet run over, or worse.

The worst part is that the people who get hurt are crossing with the light. We are taught over and over that it’s safest to wait for the walk signal to cross the street. But that’s exactly when turns-on-red are the most dangerous. This means even the walk signal phase is not a safe space for people on foot. For vision impaired people who depend on the audio signal to cross, people driving into the crosswalk are even more dangerous.

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In our twisted road culture, if you cross the street without a walk signal, you are a “jaywalker” and it’s your fault if you get hit. But if you wait for the walk signal, well, you still might get hit (though then it would be an “accident“).

In a way, banning turns-on-red is just a common sense and low-cost way to increase safety and start trying to address downtown’s traffic violence public health emergency. But in another way, it’s one step towards taking back the walk signal for people who are walking.

This year, Seattle will ban turns-on-red at ten downtown intersections with collision history as part of the city’s Vision Zero efforts. The turn bans will also apply to people on bikes, according to SDOT spokesperson Rick Sheridan. Here’s a map of them from KUOW:

Though turning on a red light is probably second nature for people who grew up in the US since the 70s, many nations around the globe have never allowed them except at specifically marked signals. In fact, even New York City does not allow them unless noted.

But though radio shock jocks are already calling the bans an attack on people who drive (really), the supposed benefits of allowing the turns have always been dubious. The amount of time saved on a trip is marginal, and those time-savings are more than eliminated if a collision investigation or medic response shuts down the street. Even somehow ignoring the terrible fact that a person was injured or killed, the time-saving benefits are negligible if it causes more collision backups.

Another reason people cite for allowing the turns is to save fuel. Idling vehicles waste a lot of fuel, so getting them moving and completing their trips quicker should reduce fuel usage, right?

Well, let’s go back to the top of this post. Turns-on-red not only pose dangers for people walking, but they also make the entire experience less comfortable and inviting. If people choose to drive rather than walk, that is far, far worse for the environment (and traffic) than a couple seconds of extra idling. The best way to reduce our personal transportation impact on the environment is to make walking, biking and taking transit more inviting to more people.

And that’s the wonderful part of this change. It costs very little money, but transforms the walk signal into a safer and more inviting space.

The city could even go a step further and couple these changes with a walking head start (AKA “Leading Pedestrian Interval”), a simple and easy adjustment in the signal timing that gives people a couple seconds to get established in the crosswalk before people driving start turning. You can go watch this work extremely well at 17th and Madison near Trader Joe’s, or you can watch this great StreetFilms video:

I only wish these changes were happening in more locations. The city could ban turns-on-red and program walking head starts in every urban village or identified pedestrian zone, for example. Or even better, the city could go full New York City and ban turns-on-red at all intersections unless otherwise noted by a sign or green arrow.

bikebox_top_02012guidance_bikebox-graphThe city could then go even one more step and install bike boxes (AKA “Advanced Stop Lines”) at every signal (they don’t always need to be painted green). Since right-turns-on-red are already banned, there is no reason for the front car to be pulled all the way up to the intersection, often encroaching into the crosswalk. This not only protects the crosswalk space, but also gives people on bikes the ability to get out in front where they are more visible. This helps prevent “right hook” collisions where someone driving makes a right turn in front of someone on a bike who is trying to go straight.

With the turns-on-red ban in effect and the walking head start programmed into the signal, the city could go even one step further yet and explicitly allow people on bikes to go when the walking head start goes. This gives people on bikes a protected chance to make a left turn or get moving before people driving start, which is safer and easier for everyone. Again, if you go observe 17th and Madison, you’ll see people on bikes already do this, and it works really well even though it’s probably illegal.

Or we could just skip all these steps and just jump straight to the green wave, especially for intersections with protected bike lanes:

OK, I might have gotten ahead of myself.

These ten turn-on-red bans are great steps for a safer Seattle, and one I hope continues across the city. Changes like these are easy and smart ways to start making our way towards Vision Zero. They not only make some cheap infrastructure changes, but they also start to shift our driving culture.

And in the end, that’s the hard part. People have habits, and as we’ve seen with people turning across the 2nd Ave bike lane against the red arrow, it’s not easy to make a change like this.

But we need to. And in the end, a couple seconds here and there is a very low cost for saving lives.

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78 responses to “Banning turns-on-red is an exciting first step to taking back our crosswalks”

  1. Gary Yngve

    I work at Howell & Minor, and the right-turn lane there onto I-5 is a disaster. Cars make right-on-reds looking for gaps in cross-traffic to their left without looking for peds on the right. Furthermore, the walk signal is only ten seconds, followed by a short flashing, followed by thirty seconds of don’t walk, where cross traffic is too thick for right turns on red, but peds cannot safely cross (some who are ironically just trying to cross the street to get to the parking garage).
    Even when the light is green, the right turning traffic often doesn’t yield to peds, honking at peds too slow or trying to sneak the turn when the ped is only halfway across the turn lane. Worse is drivers will cheat a right turn from the middle lane, cutting quickly when they see a gap in cars, but not seeing peds who may be hidden behind them.
    Bicyclists have it worst of all, coming from the SW corner and wanting to get to the NE corner (left of all the traffic heading to I-5 N). The only really safe way to do it is staged through two crosswalk cycles. An all-way walk here would help greatly, also for people in the buildings to the NW trying to get to the bus stop on the SE corner.

  2. Joseph Singer

    The reason right on red supposedly came about was that studies were done that lots of fuel was spent waiting to turn. Then they introduced right on red, but I’d venture to guess that many of the people who do right on red do not know that it’s your *right* to be able to do right on red. You can do right on red only if it is safe to do so. Also, I see at many intersections “right on redders” often park themselves in a crosswalk to make a turn. This is illegal and if a SPD officer felt like it they could site you for $47 if they catch you (it’s very likely you’ll never be sited for this.)

    1. Becky

      You mean that it’s NOT your right to go right on red, right? Heh.

      Sometimes I’m waiting (on a bicycle) to go straight from the right lane (when it’s allowed) and I get honked at by drivers who think going right on red is their right, even when there is a legal vehicle in front of them! Going right on red is a privilege (that will hopefully start going away), not a right!

  3. Curi

    As a year-round bike commuter and occasional motorist (I use a car 1 day a week, and my bike the rest of the time), I can’t say I support the idea of wholly banning turn-on-red scenarios. The arguments posed here of A) turning on red doesn’t save time because what if there was a collision, and B) turning on red doesn’t save gas because you should be walking/cycling in the first place, are absurdity of the highest order. Really, those arguments are so bad it damages the credibility of the author. They aren’t even logical arguments. I’m all for improving cyclist and pedestrian safety, but requiring cars to sit idle at red lights unnecessarily does not strike me as a useful solution in the least bit.

    1. Tom Fucoloro


      People are getting hurt. That’s why it’s necessary.

      And I don’t see how the A and B arguments are absurd. A is obviously true. Most of our worst traffic backups are due to collisions, either to investigate or clean-up wreckage or for a medic response to help a person injured. Especially downtown, it only takes one for the entire traffic system to grind to a halt.

      As for B, I thought that was also pretty obvious, too. If walking requires uncomfortable and dangerous crossings, then it becomes less desirable. And walking and transit use are tied together, since you have to walk to the bus or train, of course. Are you saying that fewer car trips isn’t actually the best way to reduce greenhouse gasses caused by driving?

      1. Curi

        It’s “unnecessary” because the ratio of successful turns on red to pedestrian/cyclist vs. car collisions is miniscule. Saying that turning on red does not save time due to the exceedingly rare likelihood that a collision will take place and require the roadway to be blocked off by first responders is not a logical argument. An extension of that argument would be to say that air travel does not save time because if you crash you will be dead and won’t reach your destination (on this planet, anyway…). Of course traffic would be slowed if first responders were necessary. But 99.99% of the time there is no collision, thus there are no first responders blocking the roadway, thus there is no potential time savings associated with banning turn-on-red.

        Regarding emissions, if you were to ban turning on red today, you would have an immediate and lasting negative impact on the environment due to engine idling. The number of people who would have to stop driving and start walking/biking in order to offset the emissions savings associated with turning on red would be immense, and is pretty unrealistic in the real world given peoples’ physical abilities, living arrangements, places of employment, and the rate at which infrastructure changes can be implemented. You are suggesting that banning turning on red would discourage people from driving, thus reduce vehicle emissions. Nobody would argue that driving less does not reduce emissions, but the likely reality of banning turning on red is that people would instead spend longer sitting in gridlock traffic spewing exhaust into the atmosphere while they wait for the light to turn green. If you want to reduce emissions, you need to reduce the amount of time that cars spend standing still and foster alternative ways of transportation. The suggestion that would-be pedestrians and cyclists are not engaging in those activities specifically out of fear of cars turning on red strikes me as quite flimsy.

      2. Curi

        Also, yes, perhaps most of our WORST traffic backups are collision related, but most of our traffic backups are not the result of collisions, and are instead the result of a traffic infrastructure that cannot cope with the demand.

      3. JAT

        Curi makes a solid argument; Are there some or even many intersections where no right on red makes sense? Of course! I’m all for it.

        Should motorists recognize that right on red isn’t “free,” it’s a privilege that may be exercised with due care instead of a right? Of course!

        But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater because of a few bad apples.

        Let’s enforce the laws we have!

    2. Richard Bullington

      Clearly there are many places where right on red makes great sense. In the 99.999% of Washington State which is not downtown Seattle or the University District, most of the red cycles do not even have a pedestrian to evaluate.

      But in those two places — and perhaps in a few portions of the downtowns of Bellevue, Tacoma and Spokane — it makes sense to give the pedestrians right of way. Cars really should be second class citizens there.

  4. Anthony

    Seriously? Banning a right turn en masse just to help a few intersections has to be the craziest idea of the week, and we’re just getting started.

    I guess the author has something against right turns in general, why is a big question. How about making right turns at certain intersections off limits? Is that too hard to think of? Safety is paramount on the road but this solution is so half baked that like the poster above says it makes top absurdity level, easily.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      They ARE making right turns at certain intersections off limits. Did you read the story?

    2. William Wilcock

      To the best of my knowledge right turns on red (or left turns on red in the UK) are not allowed anywhere in western Europe unless specifically allowed usually by a green turn light or painted green arrow. It is inherently dangerous to allow right turns on red when pedestrians are present at a crossing because it requires the driver to look in 2 directions at once – to their left to see if the roadway is clear and straight ahead/ to their right to see if the lights have changed and if a pedestrian has started walking. If we want safer streets then we may have to put up with the inconveniences that will make them safer.

      The fuel saving argument is ridiculous although perhaps we can use it to justify forcing drivers to drive the speed limit rather than 10 miles over in urban areas by installing speed cameras everywhere, another big difference between much of western Europe and the US

    1. rob_kp

      Great link! While it’s an old study, it should still hold relevance. Just from the abstract: Measures of Pedestrian and bicycle accidents involving a motorist making a
      right turn at a signalized location increased significantly at all study sites after the
      adoption of Western RTOR. Estimates of the magnitude of . the increases ranged
      from 43% to 107% for pedestrian accidents and 72% to 123% for bicyclist accidents.
      Over half of the accidents in which a vehicle turned right at a signalized location
      after the adoption of Western RTOR involved a right turn on a red signal. These
      RTOR accidents constituted between 1% and 3% of all pedestrian or bicycle accidents
      in the studied locations. The majority of these RTOR crashes involved a driver
      looking left for a gap in traffic and striking a pedestrian or bicyclist coming from
      the driver’s right.

      1. ODB

        This is an interesting study. It’s worth noting that the states in the study implemented RTOR in mid-1970s in part as a fuel-saving measure, due to 30% average savings in waiting time at a signal. (Page 3.) Another interesting finding is that most cyclists in RTOR collisions were struck while riding the wrong direction in the roadway–which I guess must have been more prevalent in the 1970s (?). (Page xi, 37.) The median bicyclist age in a RTOR collision was about 15 years old. (Page 39-40.) 93% of pedestrian injuries were minor or slight and bicyclist injuries generally low to moderate in severity (with no reported cyclist fatalities) due to the generally low speed of the collisions. (Page 27, 40.) In addition to their generally low severity, RTOR collisions were a small percentage of total collisions involving pedestrians or cyclists, constituting 1-3% the total. (Page 45.)

        In light of this information, I think a blanket ban on RTOR doesn’t make sense because there are lots of intersections where the turn is perfectly safe and it’s a waste of time and fuel to just sit there. I certainly wouldn’t support an RTOR ban for bicycles. (Aside: anyone who advocates for an Idaho stop for bikes should also support RTOR for bikes for the same reasons.) I can see barring RTOR for cars at specific intersections, if it has been identified as a significant cause of collisions.

      2. Yeah, banning right on red for bikes makes no sense. At the speed you go right-on-red on a bike you’re not going to injure anyone. And making a right on green can be more dangerous on a bike because of the risk a driver tries to go around you without making a proper lane change. Bikes and cars are simply not the same.

  5. Brian

    This won’t work without aggressive jaywalking enforcement at all. At quite a few intersections downtown, there is so much pedestrian traffic that it’s impossible to make a right turn on green, and people running into the intersection even when there’s a “don’t walk” sign (or less than 5 seconds left on the flashing don’t walk sign) don’t help either. If right on red is banned, no traffic will get through the light at all.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      I bet once it goes into effect, these concerns won’t turn out. People turn right in European cities all the time.

      And by your use of the term jaywalking, I’m guessing you didn’t click and read my link in the story above. The fact is, if you make following the rules comfortable and efficient, more people will follow the rules. Often the “worst” behaviors are in places where waits are too long or crosswalks are too far away, etc.

      And the blinking hand will probably always mean you can still go, no matter what the word of the law actually says. There are some behaviors we can reasonably try to change, but I don’t think that’s one of them. Especially with the countdown walk signals, everybody treats them as saying, “Go so long as you can get across before this gets to zero.” And I don’t think trying to change that is the best use of our time and resources.

    2. AW

      True, Seattle is not New York City but NYC has never allowed right on red, has much more traffic and pedestrians and jaywalking is rampant and expected. Drivers still get where they are going.

    3. jay

      Be careful what you wish for! If there was aggressive enforcement of; failure of drivers to stop for pedestrians, blocking crosswalks, failure to come to a full stop before turning on red, I bet this whole banning turns on red would be unnecessary.
      Just for the heck of it how about enforcing speed limits too? “Aggressive enforcement” not sounding so good now is it?
      Granted, it is more likely that pedestrians could be the target of enforcement than drivers (Seattle used to be (in)famous for ticketing pedestrians, though they seem to have backed off some)

    4. The thing with the pedestrian caution phase is that it has to be long enough for a very slow walker to get across the street. When crossing some of the wide intersections in Seattle that means there’s hardly any time before the caution phase starts, even though there’s plenty of time to make it across safely.

      Programming the signals correctly for slow-moving people is the right thing to do, and doing so shouldn’t slow down all the faster-moving people. The purpose of the caution phase is to keep slow walkers safe, not to keep cars moving. If the turn backs up too much ban it, like right turns are banned at 5th/Pine. Walking has to work as the first priority; drivers can always take a different route to avoid a turn or park somewhere else.

      1. Molly

        6th and Pine. RTOW is also banned at 5th because then you’d be going the wrong way on a one way street. (Not that that stops some people, such as the person in an enormous white pick up truck going North on 2nd the other day between Seneca and University)

      2. @Molly: Heading south on 5th, a right turn would send you west down Pine, which would be correct but for the big “NO TURNS” signs; coming from Pine, yeah, that wouldn’t work :-).

        I can’t comment on what you can do from Pine at 6th, since that’s rarely on my way — I’ve always lived places where my main route downtown is Dexter, so even in the rare occasion I take Pine down from the hill (I usually take Union->Seneca->8th instead) I take 8th north from Pine.

    5. asdf2

      The purpose of the flashing red hand is to give slow walkers who know they won’t make it across in time a chance to wait. It is not about right-turning drivers. If the deliberate intent is to provide a signal phase for drivers to turn right, the signal should be explicit about it and provide a green right-turn arrow during is this phase. The signal at 25th Ave. and the Burke Gilman Trail near the U-Village provides a good example of this. (Interesting enough, this signal also manages to preserve the right turn on red during signal phases where it doesn’t compromise pedestrian safety).

      That said, in an area like downtown, the priority should be pedestrian movement, not motor vehicle movement. Any protected-right-turn phases should be a small portion of the overall signal cycle.

    6. Josh

      There’s close to zero public education on what pedestrian signals mean, driving is the only activity that really gets any training on signs and signals. So, many people treat pedestrian signals just like traffic lights — the flashing hand/don’t walk/countdown is treated like a yellow light. Except a yellow light really does mean it’s still legal to enter the intersection as long as there’s room to make it through.

      I suspect, if polled, most people have no idea that it’s illegal to enter the crosswalk on the flashing hand/don’t walk/countdown. Just like a yellow light, they think it’s fine to enter the crosswalk as long as they can clear it before the steady red.

      1. Larry

        Close but no. What a yellow light really means is that it’s illegal to enter the intersection, unless you can’t safely stop in time. All those cars speeding to get through the yellow are breaking the law. So a yellow light is pretty analagous to a don’t walk sign.

        (I know this first hand because of a car accident I got into. I was turning left and entered the intersection on a yellow. Once it turned red, I started turning left. An oncoming car went through the red and hit me. The police report deemed me partially responsible because I shouldn’t have been in the intersection at all.)

      2. Josh

        Nope. The RCW is clear, it is entirely legal to enter the intersection on yellow, doesn’t have anything to do with whether you have time to stop or not, as long as you enter the intersection before the light turns red.

        But you also can’t enter the intersection unless it’s clear to proceed, that’s why you get ticketed if you’re camped out in the intersection to make a left turn — you’re not supposed to enter until you’re clear to proceed through the intersection.

        (2) Steady yellow indication

        (a) Vehicle operators facing a steady circular yellow or yellow arrow signal are thereby warned that the related green movement is being terminated or that a red indication will be exhibited immediately thereafter when vehicular traffic shall not enter the intersection. Vehicle operators shall stop for pedestrians who are lawfully within the intersection control area as required by RCW 46.61.235(1).

        (b) Pedestrians facing a steady circular yellow or yellow arrow signal, unless otherwise directed by a pedestrian control signal as provided in RCW 46.61.060 shall not enter the roadway.


      3. Larry

        From the Washington State official driver’s guide http://www.dol.wa.gov/driverslicense/docs/driverguide-en.pdf

        “A steady yellow traffic light means the traffic light is about
        to change to red. You must stop if it is safe to do so. ”

        Seems pretty clear to me.

      4. Peri Hartman

        That is good advice. However, the driver’s guide is not the law.

      5. Joseph Singer

        It may not be written in strict legalese but all the things it mentions indeed are the law. Whether SPD chooses to enforce those laws is another matter. If you do not do what the guide says there’s a good chance that you possibly could be cited.

      6. Peri Hartman

        Joeseph, here’s the law:

        (2) Steady yellow indication

        (a) Vehicle operators facing a steady circular yellow or yellow arrow signal are thereby warned that the related green movement is being terminated or that a red indication will be exhibited immediately thereafter when vehicular traffic shall not enter the intersection. Vehicle operators shall stop for pedestrians who are lawfully within the intersection control area as required by RCW 46.61.235(1).

        As you can see, it makes no distinction on what you do during a yellow light. It is only specific that you cannot enter the intersection on a red light. The law is what counts if you get a citation, not the driver’s guide.

  6. bill

    I guess you’ve never sat in a car downtown, Tom, while only one vehicle manages to turn right on each signal cycle. Something that might make drivers less frantic to turn right on red is for pedestrians to not begin crossing when DONT WALK is flashing. The don’t walk phase is twofold: allow pedestrians to clear the intersection, and give cars a chance to turn right during the green light. Drivers are not the entire root of this problem (although plenty of offenses go unticketed –where the h*** is the SPD?).

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      I have sat in a car downtown. It sucks! And it’s usually in a Car2Go, so those seconds are costing me cold hard cash.

      But I’ve also walked downtown and almost gotten mowed down by people turning who weren’t looking for me. And that sucks waaaaaaaaay worse.

  7. Kirk

    Yes, the No Right on Red process would have to make right turns on green feasible. At many intersections downtown, right on red is the only way to make a right; the green phase has a constant flow of pedestrians all the way until the light turns red. First and Union is like this, with many more pedestrians crossing First than Union on busy touristy days.

    An all way pedestrian crossing, followed by a green for each direction with no pedestrian crossings may be the best method to solve this at many of these intersections. This would also benefit greatly the pedestrian trying to cross to the other corner.

  8. Roberto

    I’m a cyclist and don’t drive (excepting for rentals), but I can’t say I support a blanket ban on right on red. And yes, I’m always terrified of getting plowed into by the right turns from southbound traffic right after the University Bridge. (I’ve slammed my brakes more than once).

    To my point, I would support a right on red ban for certain problematic intersections (such as the one I mentioned). But a blanket ban would really snarl traffic up badly, I think.

    1. Curi

      Yep, I ride the University Bridge every day, and it can get a bit sketchy when cars want to turn right from Eastlake onto Fuhrman Ave, but I don’t see how preventing cars from turning on red at that location would help matters. If the light is red, cyclists should not be entering the intersection. If the light is green, you have to fend for yourself the same as any other intersection where cars may want to turn right on green. Due to the fact that cyclists can often travel faster in the bike lane than cars can in their lane at that location, it’s definitely a spot requiring great caution.

  9. pqbuffington

    what about “all walk”-ing those intersections as well? it appears to work pretty good (you can cross diagonally, for example) where so employed…thoughts, stats?

    1. Curi

      Maybe those are worth considering. There is (was?) one of those in use at 15th Ave NE & NE 40th near UW. Frankly, it was quite a quagmire for cyclists to find their way through a sea of pedestrians crossing in every direction at the same time. The pedestrians don’t really want to make a hole for cyclists to get through because they think of bikes as “vehicles” (or at least non-pedestrians), but we are expected to cross when the peds do, and not when car traffic does. I follow a different route now, but it was an absolute mess at rush hour.

      1. LWC

        Yes, 15th/40th still has an all-walk (source: I crossed it five minutes ago). I use it daily on foot and on bike, and don’t find it to be an issue – except for the fact that the pedestrian countdown seems not to be timed well for a diagonal cross. I’m a fast walker, and I still need to hurry to make it across the intersection diagonally during the walk phase.

      2. PhilonQA

        I think you might to review the laws again –

        Sidewalks – Drivers and bicyclists must yield to pedestrians on sidewalks and in crosswalks (RCW 46.61.261).

        Bolting into traffic – No pedestrian or bicycle shall suddenly leave a curb and move into traffic so that the driver can not stop (RCW 46.61.235).

        Riding on the Road – When riding on a roadway, a cyclist has all the rights and responsibilities of a vehicle driver (RCW 46.61.755).

  10. ronp

    Seems strange to hear people on a bike blog whine about a modest proposal to make cars do a bit more work in exchange for pedestrian and bike safety.

    More road diets now! More protected bike lanes now! More greenways now!

    Wider sidewalks and more street landscaping now!


    1. Adam

      I know, right?

      US states allowing right on red is the exception for civilized countries, yet we have people whining anyway. It’s dangerous for people walking and biking, and safety for people should be of the utmost importance. Full stop.

    2. Curi

      I think it’s because there are still a few of us who haven’t totally lost the ability to see things from more than one perspective… ;)

      1. Capitol Hillian

        When I drive I find that people who block the box often pull into the intersection and wait because they are worried that a car is going to do a right on red turn and block them from going straight (and they are often right when they properly wait behind the intersection – cars do turn right and block the space that opens up).

        As a driver this helps me because it organizes the turning movements and decreases the incentive to block the box – something that irritates me even more than not being able to turn right on red.

  11. asdf2

    In general, I don’t have a problem with right-on-red, but at targeted intersections, restricting it does make sense. For instance, when there’s a multi-lane turn, the right-on-red is much more problematic for pedestrians trying to cross because one car blocks the view of the driver in the next lane over.

  12. RDPence

    But right-turn-on-green can be just as dangerous. The pedestrians are just in a different crosswalk when the cars turn.

    1. Peri Hartman

      It does make one important difference. At least they are looking in front of them instead of to the left.

      You can still get a right-hook, though, if you are a fast cyclist zipping by on the right. In that case, I suggest riding in the auto lane, not the bike lane, or at least being very cautious.

    2. LWC

      The difference with right-on-green is that drivers don’t have to look out for other cars with right-of-way, so they are freer to watch out for pedestrians.

    3. Alexander

      The only time I’ve been injured by a car was in a left-on-green situation downtown. The driver said that as I walked into the crosswalk his view of me was blocked by the pillar of his car.

      In general, left turns are more dangerous than right turns. Left turns are more complex than right turns and tend to occur at higher speeds. That is one of the (many) reasons why UPS drivers turn right 99% of the time.

      Right-on-red at least forces drivers to stop (or at least dramatically reduce speed) whereas turning on green lights allows drivers to carry more speed into the intersections. As we know, speed = severity.

      1. Peri Hartman

        Yes, left turns from one way streets are problematic with visibility. When driving, I have to remember to physically lean to the right by about 12″ in order to see the crosswalk in such cases.

        It’s an extra factor to consider when deciding to ban left or right on reds.

  13. Jeik

    I’m really skeptical that people will obey this. I see cars cruise down Bell St everyday when there are clear signs that say they can’t. I don’t think signage does much to improve safety anymore, especially downtown where there is so much going on. Still, I support the effort.

    1. Josh

      Some level of enforcement is necessary to get people to obey the rules. Not a Draconian crackdown, just a reasonable fear that blatantly breaking the rules occasionally leads to a proportional punishment.

      Look how much speeding has improved in school zones with cameras, for example.

    2. Molly

      The Bell St signs are not clear to me. Those could definitely use a re-design.

      1. Josh

        Agreed, even knowing what they mean, instinctively, they feel like they apply only to the green light on the right, as if it’s two lanes and only one must turn. Rules require two signals for safety, but why do those signals have green balls if traffic must turn right? Use green right arrows with “except bus and bike” so that the signal itself tells all drivers they must turn right.

      2. rob_kp

        Paint directing the driver that it’s turn only would also help.

  14. Law Abider

    Instead of a blanket ban on RTOR, which is a terrible knee-jerk reaction to an issue, what we need in the CBD (or other areas that might warrant it) is a no RTOR M-F 7-7 or something like that. In addition, let’s implement all walk signals in those same areas 24/7. Outside of M-F 7-7, there’s little to no reason to ban RTOR as both pedestrian and car traffic are a magnitude lower and it causes unnecessary delays


    “In our twisted road culture, if you cross the street without a walk signal, you are a ‘jaywalker’ and it’s your fault if you get hit. But if you wait for the walk signal, well, you still might get hit (though then it would be an ‘accident’).”

    I’m sorry, but that is a terribly ignorant statement to make. If you jaywalk and get hit, yeah, it’s your fault and it’s an accident (or whatever word you wish to use; accident is the current accepted terminology). If you wait for a walk signal and get hit, then it’s their fault and also an accident. How is that twisted in any way? It’s just adds an obviously bias, emotional element to this post that is not needed and turns away people that might otherwise sympathize with you.

    1. Peri Hartman

      I like the idea of the walk-all-ways for peds on certain intersections. When ped *and* vehicle traffic is high, it isn’t easy for vehicles to turn right on red *or* on green – peds block the way in both cases. In lighter traffic, walk-all-ways may be safer but it would increase the signal cycle length.

      With walk-all-ways, the cyclist benefits from a choice: he can go with the peds or go with the autos. Also, there is no safety problem of continuing to allow right-on-red.

      It’s really a much better solution than just banning right-on-red.

      1. Law Abider

        The increased signal length is a legitimate concern. The question we have to ask is: will traffic flow better when green right turns can turn unimpeded, even given a 25 to 30 second all-way pedestrian phase, than the current setup?

        Another thought is that, when restricting RTOR M-F 7-7, could we allow all-way crossings during that same time period only, instead of 24/7 without causing massive confusion?

      2. EHS

        Agreed. Well, actually, this is why we have traffic engineers and computer models to figure out signal timing – to figure out the trade offs. I’m going to default to them, perhaps with an encouragement that accidents are included in/weighted more heavily in their models, and with encouragement to adapt to our growing city.

        So, as more people walk and there are more people total, we need more all-ped signals. But I’m not going to pretend that I know the proper extent of that, beyond “in places with lots of pedestrians”

  15. Josh

    The fuel saving argument made sense when many states decided to accept Right-on-Red as a default in the ’70s. Remember, that was the era of traditionally-aspirated V-8 engines that ran rich at idle, burning far more gas idling than today’s engines. (Not to mention pumping a lot more partially-burned fuel into urban atmospheres.)

    Between pollution controls and fuel economy standards, though, the equation has definitely changed. Idling losses are a fraction of what they used to be, and the design of cars has changed to make right-on-red significantly more hazardous due to massive, view-blocking A-pillars where there used to be wing windows and thin frame members.

    What was reasonable and safe in my ’65 Country Sedan is no longer reasonable or safe in today’s cars.

    1. Curi

      But one thing you did not mention is that there are FAR more cars on the road today than there was in 1975. In 1975, there was 1.3 trillion total vehicle miles traveled in the U.S. In 2014, there was 3 trillion total vehicle miles traveled. So even if contemporary cars idle more cleanly than cars from 40 years ago, we are driving more than twice as many miles.


      1. jay

        But he did say; ” Idling losses are a FRACTION of what they used to be”. If improperly adjusted (not uncommon) the old carburetor idle circuits could be incredibly bad, even now, occasionally I’ll be behind a “classic” car and can smell raw gasoline. Combine modern engine controls with a modest number of hybrids that shut off their engines when stopped, and even one or two electric cars, and I’ll bet the reduction in idling loses beats your “far” more miles by a large margin, an order of magnitude would be only a little surprising. Also I’d imagine many of those increased miles are highway miles. If people are driving 2.3 times as many miles in congested cities, then they “are doing it wrong” (and if stopping RTOR makes a few of them take a bus, bicycle or walk then win-win)

        Another thing that has gotten little mention, there are a few people who (sometimes) drive lawfully and don’t enter an intersection when there isn’t room to leave it on the other side, when someone making a RTOR takes the resulting gap to unlawfully block the intersection, then the first car misses the light cycle (the driver of which deserves it for being a sucker) and it, and the cars behind it (one of which you might be driving) are also wasting gas idling. Then you have the cases where an a-hole is not going to let another a-hole get in front of them and corks the intersection causing gridlock for everybody, how’s that for wasting gas?

  16. Alexander

    Perhaps SDOT should install right-turn green arrows for the most problematic intersections. That would cost money and make the intersection phases longer, but it would separate car phases from pedestrians and allow for some cars to safely turn.

    For those who think turning delays only affect car drivers, this morning I saw 2 “late-walking” (entering crosswalk on the blinking-hand) pedestrians prevent a car from turning right from NB 4th onto EB Spring (NW corner of the library). The result was that the 2 buses behind the car could not move forward and missed the light. Essentially 2 pedestrians delayed ~80 bus riders, not just the 1 driver in the car.

    1. Andres Salomon

      I’d argue that the right-turning driver delayed the 2 buses, not the pedestrians. ;)

      It’s not like the pedestrians were blocking the path of the bus..

  17. EHS

    Articles like this make me sad. We desperately need better bike and pedestrian infrastructure, and therefore good advocacy for such. Obviously this blog and cascade bicycle club are major players in Seattle, but attitudes like those in this article aren’t effective for advocacy.

    We’re in a city that has over a million car trips a day, which probably average one right-on-red per, and yet the collision rate is less than one per week, and odds are, those are incredibly low-speed.

    That is an incredible success rate for right turns on red. Hiding under the vastness of term “unnecessary” let’s the author completely lose sight of proportionality and appropriateness. For instance, driving over 5 mph is technically unnecessary, leading to preventable injuries deaths – should we ban it? What about biking? I bet there are as many and as severe of injuries from newbies using clipless pedals as there are from right turns on red (fifty a year? I’d bet there are several times that many), so how about we ban those?

    Ok, I’m being flip. But this is a serious problem. We destroy our credibility, as a community, when people hear about things like this. We sound like people who in every situation will say, “bikes better!”, just as a knee jerk reflex. And who wants to listen to the reasoning of such unreasonable people? You already know what they’re going to say. So we have to show selves to be, and indeed be, more reasonable and considered.

    Now, I realize that the article was about targeted intersections, which I agree, should get signal separation or other treatments, because clearly those intersections aren’t working. But the tone of the argument strongly indicates that the authors wouldn’t mind an outright ban on rights-on-red. And it does nothing to make its point relatable to the general population.

    You could do so much better. How about pointing to the experience almost everyone has had as a driver at some point – downtown intersections where you can’t take a tight on green, because of pedestrians going one way, or on red, because of pedestrians going the other. One car gets through per cycle, by edging to the space between the crosswalks on green, and then going through when it turns red.

    “Hey, how about it? We could give peds their own signal, and then give drivers a pedestrian free signal, and bam! Get rid of that annoying experience, save people from injury, and make walking and driving in the city more enjoyable.”

    Such an argument wouldn’t villianize drivers, which almost all of us are (even those of us who are cyclists first), and unnecessarily alienate moderate supporters. And it would get the signal separation we’re looking for, because, well, isn’t it just practical to do that at busy downtown intersections?

    1. ODB

      I agree with a lot of this. But just to play devil’s advocate, maybe there’s value in having a group of people out there taking a more radical ideological position–even if many people find it too extreme–just so that when the actual policy makers split the baby, the moderate/compromise position ends up in a good place, rather than having the bike advocates start from an already compromised position.

      Plus, it may be just the nature of advocacy that in order to muster the necessary energy you need to have a strong vision of a better society that is couched in moral terms, e.g., preventing “unnecessary” deaths. Trying to parse out the meaning of “unnecessary” would mean addressing the difficult and troubling question of how do you weigh the value of travel time saved versus injuries/deaths prevented. (Because, as you rightly say, we could prevent injuries and deaths by limiting speeds to 5mph.) But that level of analysis isn’t really part of the program.

    2. Curi

      Well said, EHS. My thoughts, exactly. I’m occasionally disappointed by embarrassingly one-sided views that are sometimes expressed here because “bike yeah!”. It just hurts the cause if you don’t use a whole-systems approach.

      1. b

        I become much less of a Portlandia bicyclist caricature when I have to pull my car out of the garage every couple weeks and drive through a congested area. It reminds me that there’s no such thing as evil “cars”, just people trying to get around the best way they can. Perspectives are always healthy.

      2. Tom Fucoloro

        I don’t see how you all are getting “bike yeah!” and Portlandia out of this. The whole story is about people walking. And I don’t remember saying anyone was bad for driving a car. Nobody actually wants to hit people in a crosswalk. Changing the rules so fewer people get hit seems like a good thing for people who drive, too.

    3. Josh

      Cyclists are, frankly, an afterthought in the national campaign against Right-on-Red. Across the country, the big forces behind this are pedestrian advocates and urban planners.

      Pedestrian advocates disagree with the idea that maiming a pedestrian every week in a city as small as Seattle is an acceptable cost of slightly-more-convenient driving. (Note, too, that these collisions are underreported because only one party involved is in a car — car-on-car collisions have much more reliable reporting than car-on-bike or car-on-pedestrian collisions. One a week is probably a significant understatement of the actual threat.)

      Urban planners disagree with the idea that we should reduce the capacity of sidewalks and crosswalks, thus increasing demand for driving on short trips, by allowing drivers to take some of the limited time allocated to pedestrian crossing. Cities survived for centuries without cars, but restrict the flow of pedestrians in a dense city and it begins to die.

      Honestly, cyclists could sit this one out entirely without changing the outcome. But there’s nothing wrong with cheering on successes by natural allies.

      1. ODB

        This is where credibility starts breaking down. RTORs are responsible for “maiming a pedestrian every week”? The reported Seattle RTOR *collision* rate is about one per week. In the study cited above, the vast majority of RTOR injuries were minor (93% of pedestrian injuries were minor or slight). The collision rate does not equate to the “maiming” rate. Maybe this rate of injury is still not worth it, but let’s at least frame the question accurately.

        Likewise, you state that RTORs “reduce the capacity of sidewalks and crosswalks, thus increasing demand for driving on short trips, by allowing drivers to take some of the limited time allocated to pedestrian crossing.” Are you saying that RTORs are creating gridlock on the sidewalk to the point where people say, “this is intolerable, I’m going to drive instead”? Based on my experience walking and driving downtown (i.e., where sidewalks are most congested), I have never had the experience of thinking that crosswalks are jammed enough with RTORs to make me want to get in a car and attempt to make turns across those same jammed crosswalks. Under those conditions, I take pity on people in cars, including those nosing into the crosswalks in a desperate attempt to make an RTOR.

    4. urmom

      For every “very occasional” right-on-red collision, there are likely hundreds more of near-misses. Walking my dog every day downtown is like going through a field of landmines; the only reason I haven’t been hit yet is because I ASSUME every car is being driven by someone completely oblivious to pedestrians (and sometimes other cars, too!). I’ve lived in several other big cities, but I have never encountered such a war zone for pedestrians.

      Right-on-red makes sense at a lot of intersections, but as someone earlier commented, it just doesn’t make sense downtown or in the U District, or any other high-density area.

      AND we need to start enforcing other rules. I have made it a game at certain BUSY intersections to guess how many people will run the red light. The average I’ve calculated is two. Two PER RED.

      There are “yield to pedestrian signs” on Western where there should be stop signs. As I approached one of these intersections yesterday, I watched as one poor guy just stood there like a naive idiot, assuming that eventually the drivers would magically let him cross. (They didn’t. The only ways to cross that street are to wait for an opening in traffic or just enter the intersection and pray that people stop.)

      It is unpleasant to be a pedestrian in downtown Seattle. Constantly worrying about crossing the street and getting hit is awful.

      And I’ve driven downtown, and it sucks. But no more than driving downtown in any other decent-size city. Downtown is not for cars, and if you drive there, you have to take backseat (pun intended). Downtown is for the masses and mass transit (or alternative transit — i.e. bikes!).

  18. Clark in Vancouver

    Apparently that line wasn’t in the script of Midnight Cowboy. Dustin Hoffman just stayed in character when they almost got hit while doing a guerrilla shoot and it came out of him.


  19. RDPence

    The SDOT guy says “While we’ve seen positive safety gains outside of the city center, we’ve seen an increase in the severity of collisions in the central business district. Specifically collisions involving speeding.”

    Forbidding right turns on red has nothing to do with speeding. Rather how many ped accidents occurred at these 10 intersections when drivers were turning right on red?

  20. […] many turns on red will prevent […]

  21. […] for the Mile High City, others have blazed a trail. Denver should learn from the failures and successes of other cities, and look to its peer city, Seattle, for […]

  22. ray allen

    Drivers ignoring ‘No Turn On Red’ signs or failing to stop for red lights are a problem in my city.

    I requested that my local Department of Public Transportation use a pictorial sign similar to this Canadian sign (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Qu%C3%A9bec_P-115-1-mtl.svg) instead of text based signs for ‘No Turn On Red’, but was told that it couldn’t be done because “It’s not in the MUTCD”.

    I had to remind ‘our friends in government’ at the community outreach event that there is a procedure for using experimental signs in the MUTCD, because I have a PDF copy. She was not happy because a laymen knew more than she did.

    1. Joseph Singer

      Part of the problem of “right on redders” is that they only hear that it’s OK to turn right on red. They don’t seem to get the part of the law that says you can turn right on red *if it’s safe to do so.* They think that if they are stopped at a red light they always can turn right.

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