Editor’s note: This story is part of our year-long series “Are We Safe?” To submit a topic for the series, follow the link at the end of this article.
Update: The Chapel Hill Town Council approved changes Oct. 2, 2019, to prohibit right turns on red at more than a dozen intersections around town and campus.
Drivers will need to pay extra attention later this month when right turns on red will no longer be allowed at 16 intersections downtown, on campus and in other busy areas.
An additional no turn on red sign could be posted at the intersection of Cameron Avenue and Pittsboro Street, once the town gets the last-minute change approved by the N.C. Department of Transportation.
The Town Council voted 7-1 Wednesday to enact the changes along Franklin and Rosemary streets and on UNC’s campus. Right turns on red also will end at East Franklin Street in front of the Eastgate Crossing shopping center and on the south side of the Caswell Road and North Estes Drive intersection.
A sign prohibiting drivers from turning right on red already is posted on the north side of Caswell Road at Estes Hills Elementary School.
At other intersections, where right turns are allowed, drivers still must stop and yield to pedestrians or other drivers with the right of way before turning. Failure to stop before turning right on red can lead to a traffic citation, which can result in fines, three points on your driver’s record and higher insurance premiums.
The changes will take effect Oct. 31.
Pedestrian, bike safety
Turning right on a red light became commonplace in the 1970s when oil and energy crises forced the nation to save gas, but the push now is focused on making cyclists and pedestrians safer, council members said.
Council member Nancy Oates voted against the change Wednesday, citing the potential increase in greenhouse gases from cars idling longer at stoplights and the potential increase in traffic jams. She also noted that more cyclists and pedestrians have been in accidents with cars turning right on a green signal than cars turning right on red.
Between February 2013 and March 2019, Chapel Hill Police Department records show there were 113 incidents involving pedestrians and cars at intersections.
Of those incidents, 19% were on Franklin Street and 15% were on Rosemary Street. Another 11% were along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Only four involved cars turning right on a red light.
But Police Chief Chris Blue said that’s where the town hears the most concerns. It’s hard to say whether the issue has gotten better or worse in recent years, he said.
“We hear from pedestrians that they feel particularly vulnerable when vehicles are making right turns on red and trying to clear an intersection,” he said. “There’s lots of information to take in for the motorist.”
Enforcing traffic laws
The affected intersections were chosen in consultation with the N.C. Department of Transportation and either had an unacceptable number of pedestrian and vehicle conflicts, were designed in a confusing way, or had a traffic-signal phase that let only pedestrians cross the street.
Enforcement could be key, since some drivers already ignore no turn on red signs.
At East Rosemary and Hillsborough streets, for instance, drivers turning onto Hillsborough Street toward campus regularly ignore the sign, even though landscaping at that intersection blocks their view of oncoming traffic.
Police do enforce existing no right on red intersections, Blue said, but they also focus on educating drivers about the law.
“It’s not necessarily our goal to always have a heavy enforcement posture, but we do want folks to be aware that those are particularly vulnerable locations (and) high pedestrian traffic intersections where cars are trying to get through crowded areas,” he said. “Oftentimes, we’ll follow up those efforts with some enforcement campaigns to see how our education and outreach worked.
Chapel Hill police will coordinate with UNC Police to educate drivers and enforce no turn on red intersections on campus, he said.
Pedestrians, cyclists vs. drivers
Libby Thomas, a senior research associate at the UNC Highway Safety Research Center, said traffic signal changes at intersections should be done carefully to avoid any unintended consequences.
Between 2012 and 2016, she said, the center found roughly 19% of the 10,605 crashes across the state involving pedestrians and drivers were at traffic light-controlled intersections. Of those, 151 pedestrians were hit by drivers turning right on red: 87% reported being injured and one was killed.
Roughly 19% of 4,478 crashes involving cyclists and drivers also happened at signalized intersections, the center reported. Of those, 94 cyclists were hit by drivers turning right on red. About 89% reported being injured.
Pedestrians and cyclists who find it difficult to cross safely at an intersection may try crossing the street at another location or “behave in unexpected ways,” Thomas said.
“So, for example, pedestrians may cross against the signal indication, or move away from the intersection to cross, when or where they may feel safer, but may actually be less safe since they may not be expected by drivers and speeds may be higher,” she said.
No right on red intersections
The town approved changes at these Intersections:
▪ Caswell Road on the south side of North Estes Drive
▪ Franklin Street at the entrance to Eastgate Crossing shopping center
▪ Franklin Street at Hillsborough Street
▪ Franklin Street at Henderson Street
▪ Raleigh Street at Cameron Avenue and at Country Club Road
▪ South Road at Country Club Road
▪ Westbound on South Road to Columbia Street
▪ Columbia Street at Rosemary Street
▪ Columbia Street at Franklin Street
▪ Columbia Street at Cameron Avenue
▪ Rosemary Street at Hillsborough Street
▪ Rosemary Street at Henderson Street
▪ Rosemary Street at Church Street
▪ Manning Drive at Ridge Road
▪ Manning Drive at Paul Hardin Drive
▪ Raleigh Road (N.C. 54) at Hamilton Road