I’ve written before about the perils of pedestrianism in modern urban America. Walkers really have to mind their Ps and Qs whenever they approach an intersection. Cars rocketing through red lights, or trying to squeeze past pedestrians who are already in the crosswalk, or gliding into the crosswalk to make a rolling right turn on red, clearly aren’t thinking about us — at all — so we really need to look out for them.
So when I saw this article in the Washington Post about the District of Columbia’s evaluation of whether to end right turns on red, I read it with interest. It’s been a really bad year for traffic accidents in our Nation’s Capital, with deadly crashes involving 12 pedestrians, three cyclists, and a person riding a scooter. That’s a pretty shocking death toll, and it’s caused D.C. to reevaluate its policies — including allowing right turns on red at intersections — as part of an effort to cut down on car[people collisions.
Two points about the article were of interest to me. The first is that right turns on red was primarily the result of a federal policy adopted in the ’70s, during the “energy crisis” days. Right turns on red were viewed as a way to reduce oil and gas consumption, and federal policy was directed toward strongly incentivizing cities to allow that driving maneuver as an energy conservation measure. And the second is that the impact — an uncomfortable word under these circumstances — of allowing right turns on red on the number of traffic accidents really doesn’t seem to be significant, as a statistical matter. One early study, undertaken shortly after “right turn on red” was adopted as a policy, showed a big increase in crashes, but more recent studies, performed after drivers became used to the rules, indicate that the effect of right turn on red is negligible.
My personal pedestrian experience tells me that right turn on red is a perfectly safe maneuver — if drivers are paying attention and following the rules. The problem is that some drivers don’t do that. They roll directly into crosswalks and intersections, looking only to their left at oncoming traffic, without considering that there might be pedestrians entering the intersection — just as there are some drivers who routinely run through red lights. I’m convinced that it’s not the policy, it’s the drivers who are a problem.
And for that reason I really question whether eliminating right turns on red would make a difference. I routinely cross an intersection where right turns on red are not allowed. That makes no difference to some of the drivers — they take a right turn on red anyway. Unless our police are rededicated to enforcing basic traffic rules, which doesn’t seem to be a high priority for law enforcement right now, there’s not going to be a significant improvement in traffic safety, whether the policy changes or not.
Right turn on red or not, pedestrians just need to be wary. It’s a hazardous world for walkers.