WA bill would ban right turns on red near schools, parks and other highly-walked areas

A car waits to turn at an intersection with people biking in a protected bike lane and walking in a crosswalk. There is a no turn on red sign.Turns on red would be banned within 1,000 feet of certain places, such as schools, parks, hospitals, senior centers and other public facilities if Senate Bill 5514 passes during the 2023 State Legislative session. The bill—sponsored by Senators John Lovick, Rebecca Saldaña, Noel Frame, Derek Stanford and Marko Liias—is the first attempt in recent memory to ban turns on red in Washington State, a practice that became widespread across the U.S. under dubious pretenses during the Gerald Ford Administration.

Local transportation departments can already choose to ban turns on red on an instance-by-instance basis if traffic engineers deem it appropriate. They just need to post a “No Turn On Red” sign for each turning location. The new law does, however, put additional onus on local jurisdictions to ban turns on red in highly-walked areas, stating that turns on red must be banned at any facility “with high levels of pedestrian traffic as determined by the appropriate local jurisdiction or the department of transportation.”

Agencies will still need to install “No Turn On Red” signs at all relevant locations under the proposed bill. It does not seem to give local governments the ability to ban all turns on red with a simple ordinance. So this could be a good time to pursue your dream of starting a “No Turn On Red” sign-making business.

The bill would also ban turns on red within 1,000 feet of certain locations statewide and require transportation agencies to install the appropriate signs. The itemized list includes:

  • Elementary or secondary school;
  • Child care center;
  • Public park or playground;
  • Recreation center or facility;
  • Library;
  • Public transit center;
  • Hospital;
  • Senior center;

From my reading of the bill, drivers can only be held responsible for breaking the law if there is a “No Turn On Red” sign present. The bill as currently written also seems to only apply to right turns on red. This is a little confusing since I would assume the same principles also apply to left turns on red, which are generally legal at certain somewhat rare locations where two one-way streets intersect. They could likely revise this by simply dropping the word “right” and just saying “turns on red.”

The bill is an interesting take on the issue, trying a significant yet still more gradual tactic than simply banning the practice statewide. But it’s not clear if the state even can ban turns on red thanks to the federal Energy Policy and Conservation Act of 1975, an act sponsored by Washington Senator Henry M. Jackson. The EPCA did a lot of things in response to the 1970s oil crises, such as creating the strategic petroleum reserve, regulating the energy consumption of consumer goods and creating some fuel economy rules. But the act also required states to allow turns on red if they wanted to receive federal money for conservation programs, so all 50 states quickly adopted the practice.

But the idea that allowing turns on red would help conserve fuel has always been rather dubious, especially when you consider that allowing the practice made crosswalks significantly less safe and less comfortable for people walking and rolling. It also increased the risk of right hook collisions with people biking. Turns on red essentially make it legal for people in cars to take time and space that should rightfully belong to people walking and rolling. We have all gotten used to people in cars encroaching into our precious crosswalk space even when we have the walk signal, but it shouldn’t be this way. Banning turns on red is a big step toward giving crosswalks back to people walking and rolling.

The practice is even more concerning in recent years as major carmakers push larger and taller cars onto the public, many of which have horrifically obscured visibility directly in front of the vehicle. Walking around Seattle with my kid, who is currently 3’6″, it is terrifying to watch people pull up to a crosswalk in a modern SUV and to realize that the drivers simply cannot see her. The front ends of some of these machines essentially blocks drivers’ views of all or most of the crosswalk. My kid keeps seeking more independence, and I trust her to make the correct decisions about when to cross the street. We have been practicing for years, and she is very good at waiting for the walk signal and then looking both ways to make sure all the cars really are stopping. I walk with her, but I let her make the decision about when to go and when to wait. I have not needed to step in to correct her in a long time. But even if she does everything correctly, it is beyond her control if the person driving through the crosswalk to turn on red is physically incapable of seeing her because of reckless and irresponsible design decisions by major car manufacturers. It’s heartbreaking that kids do not have a fair chance to move around their own neighborhoods just because they are the height of a child. Banning turns on red is an appropriate and needed response to the reality that so many vehicles on our roads have such poor front-end visibility. U.S. vehicles are no longer compatible with turning on red.

It’s difficult and likely impossible to quantify exactly how much excess fuel has been burned because our nation’s crosswalks were sullied by turn on red laws in 1970s, but I am willing to bet the figure is far larger than the supposed fuel savings from car engines idling less. After all, giving more time and space to cars leads people to drive more. And taking time and space from people walking makes people walk less. Walking does not burn any oil.

So if we decide, as I hope we do, that Washington needs to ban or severely limit turns on red, what is the best way to get there? Given that generations of drivers have been driving with legal turns on red, maybe installing “No Turn On Red” signs at every intersection really is the best way to achieve the goal. We’re talking about an enormous number of signs here. But I’m not sure that trying to change the law without the signs would work as well. After all, we are trying to change the behavior, not just make it illegal. So I say, let’s get those sign shops to work.

About Tom Fucoloro

Founder and Editor of Seattle Bike Blog.
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15 Responses to WA bill would ban right turns on red near schools, parks and other highly-walked areas

  1. Joshj says:

    Left turns involve longer sight distances than right turns, and are turning towards the driver’s side of the vehicle rather than across the driver’s blind spot, so they’re *less* of a concern than right turns on red. If there’s a pedestrian in the crosswalk that’s parallel to the street the driver is turning from, the driver should be able to see that pedestrian when turning left, rather than the pedestrian being hidden by the A-pillar while the driver looks left for conflicting motor vehicles.

    But you’re right, left turns on red are still hazardous with tall modern trucks/SUVs – a pedestrian crossing from the driver’s right could be walking directly in front of a tall pickup and be invisible.

  2. Josh says:

    The requirement for a “No Turn On Red” sign is in federal MUTCD, it’s a national standard from when Congress mandated states allow right on red.

    Washington state modifies many parts of MUTCD to fit state laws, but state modifications have to be acceptable to FHWA. I doubt you’d get FHWA to accept removing the requirement for the “No Turn On Red” sign. (You don’t want a driver to learn to drive in a state where the sign isn’t required, then move to a state where the sign is required and start making illegal turns.)

  3. NB says:

    Either ban it or don’t. The sometimes-yes-sometimes-no gets translated by drivers to “always yes.” Make it clear, easily enforced, and non-arbitrary.

  4. Wim says:

    This law seems a legislative overreach.

    Since signs stating it’s illegal to make a turn on red are required, and local jurisdictions can make those changes themselves, this legislation would simply require local jurisdictions to make those changes themselves.

    Does the cost of the sign now come from the state budget instead of the local budget?

  5. gm says:

    If right-on-red is a federal policy that’s been adopted by all the states, then how can right-on-red be banned in New York City? Is there an opportunity for the City of Seattle to ban the practice within the city limits?

    It would be nice to not allow it at busy pedestrian intersections. Those leading pedestrian walk signals are meaningless when people turn right into you anyway.

  6. Tim says:

    This law would do nothing without enforcement

  7. Robin Briggs says:

    When the Federal law passed allowing right on red, every intersection with a light in Massachusetts got a sign that said “No Right On Red”. States can certainly bad right on red, it just (I guess) has to be done at every intersection.

  8. Eric says:

    This is a tough one for me. Right turn on red is a thing that should work just fine in theory. Look to make sure nobody’s coming; if nobody is, what harm does it do to proceed? The problem in practice is that too many drivers are bad at the “look to make sure nobody’s coming” step. I understand that, and I support efforts that will make streets less dangerous in aggregate, but it’s just so frustrating that those of us who are pretty good at driving can’t have nice things just because there are too many folks out there who are terrible at it.

    They recently re-did the 65th and Roosevelt intersection relatively close to my house. I go through that intersection more often on two wheels than four, and I certainly appreciate that the bike lane now retains its own space rather than merging with right-turning cars. In the new configuration, drivers showing up on a red signal can’t turn on red, they have to wait for the bike lane to go through their full green cycle, and only after that do cars have the opportunity to turn right. This is true whether or not any pedestrians or bikes are present at all. When I do drive in that area I’m seriously considering taking a different route just to avoid that particular intersection. It takes so much longer than before.

  9. asdf2 says:

    I actually find unprotected left turns to be a bigger danger source than right turns on red.

    Unprotected left turns create situations where drivers need to stomp on the gas the instant a car passes in order to squeeze through a tiny hole, and if there’s a person in a crosswalk at that point, the result can be a deadly accident. I also experienced a close call as a driver once, where a big truck traveling the other way blocked my view of pedestrians in the crosswalk.

    Right turns on red leads to drivers blocking the crosswalk while they wait for the light, which can be annoying, but least since drivers are required to stop, you can make eye contact with them and even a worst-case collision, due to the slow speeds, would likely leave you only injured, rather than dead.

    Even Bellevue has taken small steps to mitigate the unprotected left turn problem, replacing the flashing yellow arrow with a solid red arrow at some intersections when the walk signal in active due to a pedestrian pressing the beg button. I would like to see them go further and outlaw the unprotected left turns without the beg buttons, but it’s at least better than nothing.

    • Skylar says:

      Right-turn-on-red makes the lights with leading pedestrian intervals pointless, because you have drivers blowing the crosswalk continuously, often at high speed because they don’t expect to stop. Anything that makes drivers slow down a bit and think about what they’re doing is a good thing, though I agree are problematic as well.

  10. Skylar says:

    This bill is somewhat well-intentioned, but I would be even happier if the laws on the books now were actually enforced. Also, why limit the scope to just particular areas? Turn-on-red is dangerous everywhere, particularly since it encourages speeding as well (no need to stop), so it should be banned everywhere.

    Ideally the state should allow camera and other automated enforcement everywhere, with the localities keeping all or at least most of the ticket revenue so the programs can be self-sufficient and expanded, with excess revenue going to pedestrian/bike improvements or transit.

  11. duncanwatson says:

    Drivers already don’t obey right on red restrictions today. Unlike some here I have zero reservations about getting rid of right on red. It has been a killer for a long time and also a big enabler of the bullying of better drivers by the worst. (the honking and intimidation from the car behind). No one dares stop at the actual stop line and that becomes a habit which endangers pedestrians and cyclists.

    The two closest calls I have ever had were due to right on red. I was actually hit by one but managed to take minimal damage via evasive maneuvers and lots of screaming.

  12. S Rose says:

    The problems with right on red are so numerous and so deadly that it’s rather shocking to me that it yet lingers in dense urban areas where pedestrians are numerous and distractions abound. That it was required by the feds is new information to me (which should hint that I may not know what I’m talking about).

    Here’s the thing: a driver waiting to make a right on red – which is required to be but often is not after a full stop – has their attention directed to their left, looking for vehicle traffic – checking for pedestrians to their right is at best an afterthought performed after they start moving (crossing against the light ought not be a death sentence). To get the sight distances they need to see such vehicles, they are likely to invade the crosswalk. Increasingly, they may drive a vehicle that is too tall in front to see shorter pedestrians crossing ahead of them. And for what? Blocked crosswalks, mowed-down children, risky pedestrian crossings – all costs borne by pedestrians who gain no advantage from a motorist shaving a few seconds off their trip.

    I’d like to see the regulations changed to require signage where ROR is allowed rather than where it is forbidden.

  13. Shoreline Cyclist says:

    All for it as long as legitimate enforcement occurs. This is useless without it.

    Case in point for me: At 145th Street & the Interurban Trail (North) there is a “No Turn on Red” sign that is rarely obeyed. Lost track of the number of times cars have come close to hitting cyclists & pedestrians there. And I make it a point to shine my light on the sign, too.

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