"California's greatest contribution to Western culture," Woody Allen is said to have observed, "is the legal right turn on a red light."
The accuracy of Mr. Allen's Manhattan-centric snub of the West Coast is debatable. But so, too, is his suggestion that allowing drivers to make right turns on red is a positive thing.
Most American drivers, other than people of a certain age who grew up on the East Coast, are probably baffled that anyone would question this basic right, which they no doubt believe is enshrined somewhere in the Constitution.
It’s true that we Americans (except those of us who live in New York City) have been making right turns on red for a long time—beginning with drivers in the State of California in 1939. Other Western states soon followed California’s lead, with those in the East being slower to adapt. Finally, federal legislation prompted by the 1970s energy crises and signed by President Gerald Ford made right-turn-on-red the norm nationwide.
(Interestingly, this artifact of the 70s energy crunch remains intact long after the national 55-mph speed limit, estimated to have saved about 167,000 barrels of oil per day, was eliminated. But I digress.)
Outside of North America, however, right-turn-on-red is not recognized as a universal human right. European Union countries, for instance, generally forbid it outright—much to the consternation of visiting American motorists, and much to the delight of visiting American pedestrians.
What’s so wrong with right turns on red, anyway? Well, nothing, if you transport yourself entirely by automobile. But for pedestrians and cyclists it’s something else entirely.
How many times have you been about to step into a crosswalk, only to be driven back by a right-turning driver rolling through the red light without looking in your direction? Cyclists who use bike paths that parallel city streets face the same danger. When I rode my bike to work on the Alaskan Way pedestrian-bike path in downtown Seattle, I probably would have gotten nailed twice a day by right-turning drivers if I hadn’t been on the lookout.
Recent North American statistics, insofar as they are available and accurate, suggest that right-turn-on-red drivers don’t kill a large number of pedestrians and cyclists. But maybe that’s just because American pedestrians and cyclists are constantly on the lookout for errant motorists. Our motto: "Paranoia breeds confidence."
Other than reducing the paranoia factor of urban American pedestrians (a laudable goal in-and-of-itself), what would banning right turns on red--say, at specific intersections with high pedestrian and bicycle traffic--accomplish?
First, it would allow bicyclists to be given an “advance stop line” [aka "bike box"] allowing them to wait at red lights ahead of motorists where they are more visible without having to watch their back. This is common in Europe (and has been tried in Portland as well).
Second, it would allow engineers to time traffic signals to give pedestrians and cyclists an “advance green,” allowing them to lay claim to the crosswalk and street space (and thereby be more visible) a few seconds before cars started turning right. This is common in pedestrian and cycle-friendly countries like Denmark.
It would even allow cyclists and pedestrians at particularly busy intersections to have their own “protected signal phases,” when they could cross the but cars would be forbidden altogether from turning right. The Netherlands in particular makes use of this technique, in both urban and suburban settings.
I’ll grant you: this would be a hard- sell in our auto-centric society. But in a country with abysmally-low cycling rates and where the pedestrian deserves endangered-species protection, maybe it’s time to start questioning some of our basic driving assumptions.