In the face of the 1970s gas rationing and rising oil prices, the Department of Energy recommended adopting “right turn on red” (RTOR) as an energy-saving policy. Research had shown that cutting unnecessary idling time at stoplights could reduce both fuel consumption and drivers’ time. By 1980 all 50 states had adopted the policy, and some had extended the policy to include left on red.
Accident statistics from the early adopters of the policy indicated some hazard for pedestrians and bicyclists from inattentive motorists, but it wasn’t until 1994 that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) conducted a formal analysis of the safety impact of RTOR.
That study found that while the total number of crashes resulting from RTOR was low, a significant number of those that did occur involved pedestrians and bicyclists. “When a RTOR crash occurs, a pedestrian or bicyclist is frequently involved. … the proportion of RTOR pedestrian or bicyclist crashes to all RTOR crashes was 22 percent.” And of those crashes, 93 percent involved injury. The city of Minneapolis found similar impact on pedestrians and bicyclists in its 2007-2011 review.
On my daily commute through Chapel Hill and Carrboro, I regularly observe drivers pulling into pedestrian crosswalks in preparation for their right turn on red (rolling stop), often completely unaware of pedestrians waiting to cross. Most are carefully watching oncoming traffic from their left in order to make their turn as soon as possible. At very busy intersections such as Franklin and Columbia, right-turning drivers frequently start their turn through the crosswalk before pedestrians have safely crossed or the walk signal has ended.
We’ve had over 40 years of drivers’ education teaching us to stop and look both ways turning right on red, and we’ve had local and national safety campaigns reminding drivers to watch for pedestrians and bicyclists. So this isn’t a hazard resulting from lack of knowledge. Drivers know the law requires them to stop before they make their right turn; they know pedestrians have the right of way; they know bicyclists are unpredictable. Safety campaigns make us feel better, but they don’t change behavior
Locally, we’ve had way too many pedestrian and bicyclist deaths and injuries over the past few years. And yet, you can see the potential for disaster at most any driveway or intersection in one of the downtown areas.
As the towns grow and add density, the number of pedestrians and bicyclists will continue to increase, along with the number of cars, and the probability of additional crashes. Those crashes won’t all be due to right turn on red, but that practice feeds on drivers’ impatience toward anything that impedes their progress.
As much as I dislike the idea of any action that increases fuel consumption, I propose eliminating all right turns on red in the downtown areas of Chapel Hill and Carrboro where we consistently have higher pedestrian and bicyclist usage.
Before you reject this suggestion as inconvenient, think about how lucky we have been not to have had more crashes like the bicyclist who was hit by the right- turning vehicle on Franklin and Columbia back in August. The sight of that young woman lying in the middle of the intersection, surrounded by cars coming in every direction, is one that won’t leave my head. It was an accident; the driver was devastated, but it still happened.
If we can’t be proactive enough to eliminate all right turns on red in the downtowns, we can at least eliminate them at Franklin and Columbia, Main and Greensboro, and possibly a few other high-use intersections where accidents are just waiting to happen.
You can reach Terri Buckner at Tbuckner306@gmail.com. Tell us what you think about today’s commentary at email@example.com. Please include your name for publication.