Right Turns On Red

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.

no-turn-on-redjpg-8e01337c7948434eSo 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.

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Seeing The Way Clear

For the last year of so, every day on my walk to work and on the way home I’ve faced this same scene at the corner of Rich and Third Streets in downtown Columbus.  They’re putting up a new building called 80 on the Commons.  I’ve watched the construction of the building with interest, but walking past the site has been a royal pain.

They’ve closed the sidewalk and one lane of Third Street so construction workers and equipment have room to work.  As a result, we pedestrians have been shunted off to a narrow temporary walking lane with a chain-link fence to one side and a row of orange barriers to the other.  And just on the other side of the orange barriers, so close that walkers could easily reach out and touch them, are cars, trucks, and buses speeding down Third Street.  Third Street just happens to be one of the main ways out of downtown, and it’s always jammed with fast-moving traffic.

It’s unnerving to be so close to the traffic, and it became even more so when I was started walking down the channel one day this winter and discovered that some driver had smashed into the row of orange barriers, crushing a few of them and knocking the rest out of line — which made me have to climb over the helter-skelter barriers to get to work.  I thanked my lucky stars that I wasn’t walking down the lane when that incident occurred.  Interestingly, they didn’t appear to replace the crushed barriers, they just made the barrier row shorter — which means that when you emerge at the north end of the row the orange barrier row ends before the fencing does.

The temporary walking path has gotten pretty disgusting, too.  Trash gets blown into the channel or is dropped by thoughtless jerks and gets trapped there, so you’re always picking your way around the newest food wrapper or soft drink can to be added to the debris field.  You’d think that somebody on the construction crew or from the City of Columbus would be responsible for picking up and disposing of the trash, but the interests of downtown walkers apparently aren’t a high priority.

The signs on the chain link fence have been telling me that 80 on the Commons is coming in the summer of 2018.  Well, it’s the summer of 2018 already — and I’m still waiting.  It looks like they are finally getting ready to end construction and reopen the sidewalk.  I’ll be grateful to finally see the way clear to the office again.

Cracking Down On Jaywalkers

As I was walking home last night, I saw a blurb on the news crawl on the facade of the Columbus Dispatch building about Columbus police cracking down on downtown area jaywalkers.  Oh, great, I thought: another questionable allocation of police resources to address a negligible problem when more pressing issues need attention.  It reminded me of an incident that occurred many years ago, in which a lawyer hot-footed it into our firm to avoid being ticketed for jaywalking by a policeman.

But when I read the Dispatch article on the effort, I saw that the effort is far more nuanced than the blurb indicated, and I actually support what the police are doing.

The underlying problem is the recent time change, which means that Columbus is plunged into darkness in the middle of the evening rush hour.  The statistics show that deaths from car-pedestrian collisions increase during the fall, so there is a real problem to be addressed.  And, according to the Dispatch report, the enforcement effort is both even-handed — police are looking for jaywalkers and for drivers who make illegal turns or fail to yield to pedestrians who have the right of way — and is designed to focus on reminding people of their legal obligations, by having yellow-jacketed motorcycle cops stationed at key downtown intersections to talk to pedestrians and look for drivers who don’t yield, and representatives of city organizations handing out leaflets about the traffic laws near bus stops.

As I’ve noted recently, if drivers are inattentive, being a pedestrian can be very dangerous.  And if Columbus police are going to target drivers who fail to yield, it’s only fair to cite pedestrians who fail to comply with traffic laws, too.  We’re all sharing the streets and crosswalks of downtown Columbus together.  (And while we’re at it, looking for cyclists who ignore the rules of the road would be a good idea, too.)

I always cross at crosswalks, anyway, and while I like to make good time on my daily journey to and from work I’ll gladly restrain myself from crossing too early in exchange for police efforts to remind drivers about keeping an eye out for the pedestrians among us.

A Pedestrian’s Humble Request

I’ve written about the dangers cyclists face while navigating through vehicular traffic in American cities.  Now I’d like to add an appeal about a constituency that is even nearer and dearer to my heart: pedestrians.

For the most part, drivers are courteous to pedestrians like me — when they see them.  And therein lies the problem.

The big safety issue with downtown walking, in my view, is right turn on red.  Consider the following scenario that you’ve likely encountered during your driving day.  You approach an intersection in a city and you want to turn right.  You move out into the crosswalk to get a better viewpoint and see past those tall buildings that come right out to the sidewalk and block your view.  You crane your neck, peering intently to the left to see any traffic that might be approaching from that direction.  If you don’t see any to the left, you hit the gas and move ahead into that right turn.

But consider — what if a luckless pedestrian is walking toward you from the right?  He knows he has the right of way if he crosses with the “walk” sign in the crosswalk.  He might not even have been visible as you drove up to the intersection because his approach was blocked by a building on the right.  If you turn right without first looking right to see if a walker is there and he crosses just as you make your turn, the results aren’t going to be happy for either of you — but at least you’ll survive the encounter.

In my walks to and from work, I’ve seen this circumstance again and again, and the driver almost never looks to the right to see me entering the intersection.  If I don’t see them looking at me, I’ll stop rather than taking a chance of getting crushed by tons of rolling metal — and often the drivers just make the right turn, completely unaware of my presence and the fact that their inattention risks a terrible and entirely preventable accident.

So do me a favor, motorists:  Before you move out into the crosswalk and block it in advance of that right turn on red, look both ways and make sure no pedestrians are coming.  If they are near, let them have the crosswalk, unimpeded, that is their legal right of way.  Once they’ve gone, you can make that right turn.