New York City is just about the only place in the country where drivers are not permitted to make right turns at red lights, but that will soon change. Lawmakers in the nation’s capital passed a measure in 2022 that will prohibit making a right turn at a red light in Washington, D.C., and city leaders in other parts of the country are also committed to doing the same. Officials in San Francisco have voted in favor of a right-on-red ban, and bans are also being considered in Denver, Los Angeles and Seattle.
These right-on-red bans are being championed by advocacy groups alarmed by a worrying surge in pedestrian and cyclist deaths and lawmakers who are anxious to do something to protect the nation’s most vulnerable road users. However, there is little data to suggest that banning right turns at red lights will do much to reduce pedestrian and cyclist fatalities.
Studies of the safety benefits of banning right turns at red lights have been conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the National Motorists Association. The federal road safety agency checked accident data gathered over three or four years in Illinois, Missouri, Indiana and Maryland, and the motorist’s advocacy group studied accidents that took place in California between 2011 and 2019. The NHTSA found four right-on-red accidents that led to the wrongful death of pedestrians, and the National Motorist’s Association concluded that motorists making right turns on red lights in California kill one pedestrian every two years.
Improving road safety
The federal government pressured states into allowing right turns at red lights during the 1970s energy crisis. Allowing drivers to turn right on red reduces idling, which saves gas and reduces air pollution. Lawmakers in many parts of the country are considering red-on-right bans to improve pedestrian and cyclist safety, but the available data suggests that bans will do little to improve road safety.