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The case against right turn on red

More than a third of pedestrian/car crashes occur in Minnesota in part because of driver’s failure to yield.

On February 12th of this year a woman was killed in Minneapolis while walking in a crosswalk. She had the right of way. She was hit by a truck taking a right turn on red, which trucks are generally legally allowed to do (although not while a person is in a crosswalk):

“The driver of a vehicle which is stopped as close as practicable at the entrance to the crosswalk . . . in obedience to a red or stop signal, and with the intention of making a right turn may make such right turn, after stopping, unless an official sign has been erected prohibiting such movement, but shall yield the right-of-way to pedestrians and other traffic lawfully proceeding as directed by the signal at said intersection.” Minneapolis Code of Ordinances, Title 18, section 474.630.

Crash data logo

According to an MPR review of 2007-2011 crash data, more than a third of pedestrian/car crashes occur in Minnesota in part because of driver’s failure to yield. This means that almost 300 people a year are injured due to driver error.

Although specific data on right-turn-on-red crosswalk injuries in Minnesota was not readily available, a quick search revealed somewhat antiquated data pertaining to right-turn-on-red safety issues.

According to a 2002 paper, there were 1,166 crashes involving people on foot or bicyclists in Minnesota and Illinois combined between 1985 and 1998/9 combined. This equals just .04% of all crashes (including vehicle/vehicle crashes) during that time period. This figure is consistent with figures in a 1995 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report.

Although the percentage of total crashes attributable to right-turn-on-red are low, both of the above-cited reports show that walkers and bicyclists are disproportionately represented in right-turn-on-red accident statistics: about 20% of all right-turn-on-red crashes involve a person on foot or a bicyclist. Compare this to the roughly 6% of total crashes involve people on foot and bicycles (walkers and cyclists, as vulnerable users, constitute about 14% of total traffic fatalities, however).

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, “[t]he majority of these RTOR crashes involved a driver looking left for a gap in traffic and striking a pedestrian or bicyclist coming from the driver’s right.”

Making vulnerable travelers feel more vulnerable

Even when someone on foot or a cyclist is not hit by right-turning vehicles (an admittedly rare, thought unnecessary, occurrence), right turning vehicles still do a significant disservice to vulnerable users. Right-turning vehicles often pull into the crosswalk so that the driver of the vehicle can actually see oncoming car traffic. As a result, people crossing the intersection on foot lose that small stretch of street that is supposed to be temporarily theirs. That person must then walk around the front or the back of the imposing vehicle.

turning vehicles often pull into the crosswalk so that the driver of the vehicle can actually see oncoming car traffic.

If the person walks in front of the vehicle, he or she must be on guard in case the vehicle attempts to leap into traffic. If the person passes behind the vehicle, he or she must weave between multiple vehicles, any of which could move. Therefore, right turns on red mean that people can never walk across the street, even when they have the right of way, as if they own the space. People on foot must be constantly aware of their vulnerability, can never go on a walk and let their mind wander.

Shouldn’t pedestrians – people – be able to simply be in their community without wearing “light colors” and “retro-reflective materials,” as the State of Minnesota suggests? TheFederal Highway Administration appears to think so: “Prohibiting RTOR should be considered where exclusive pedestrian phases or high pedestrian volumes are present.”

Right-turn-on-red’s original rationale

During the oil and energy crises of the 1970s, the U.S. federal government encouragedjurisdictions to allow right turns on red as a fuel saving measure. The Federal Highway Administration estimated that right turns on red would save between 1 and 4.6 seconds for each driver at a red light.

While turning right on red does in fact save fuel for car drivers, the Massachusetts DOT points out that “[t]he best way to reduce fuel use is to drive less.” With 65% of trips under a mile in the U.S. made by car, improving the experience of being a pedestrian or biker, as well as improving actual safety, could result in significant fuel savings by encouraging people to walk and bike more.

Possible solutions

If Minnesota jurisdictions eliminated, or at least reduced, right turns on red, they could improve both actual and perceived safety for cyclists and people on foot. This in turn could potentially encourage more people to travel using their own power. And this result, if it occurred, would produce the outcome right turns on red were initially intended to produce: lowered energy consumption.

As an obvious first step, mayors and council members should ban right turns on red in areas with heavy foot traffic. This would not be a step in a new direction. For example, the City of Minneapolis already has additional safety measures in place in heavy foot travel areas. The Minneapolis Code of Ordinances states “No person shall ride a bicycle upon a sidewalk within a business district.” Title 18, Chapter 490, section 490.140. State statute clarifies that “‘Business district’ means the territory contiguous to and including a highway when 50 percent or more of the frontage thereon for a distance of 300 feet or more is occupied by buildings in use for business.” Minn Stat 169.01 subd. 39.

A telephone call to the Minneapolis Police Department Chief of Police’s office confirmed that the reason bicycles are not allowed on sidewalks in business districts is because of public safety concerns about crashes between bicycles and people. This public safety concern exists because of particularly high foot traffic in these areas.

If the City of Minneapolis finds it reasonable to limit bicycle traffic in high foot traffic areas for public safety reasons, isn’t it reasonable to place minor limits on car traffic in these same areas?

Minneapolis, along with other jurisdictions, should take this step toward making our communities more walkable places.

This post was written by Sam Rockwell and originally published on Follow on Twitter: @streetsmn.

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Comments (15)

  1. Submitted by James Hamilton on 04/23/2014 - 12:07 pm.

    Perhaps I missed it,

    but what are the numbers for right-turn-on-red vehicle/pedestrian/bicyclist accidents?

    How many occur at night, when anyone crossing a street should be wearing light colored clothing, whether or not at a right-on-red intersection?

    One last nit: are the bicyclists in the crosswalks or on the roadway?

    Perhaps right-on-red intersections require some modifications, similar to existing left turn prohibitions at certain hours, e.g, “No right turn on red between dusk and dawn” or the hours of heavy pedestrian traffic.

    • Submitted by Martha Garcés on 04/23/2014 - 04:13 pm.

      Blame the victim

      “…at night when anyone crossing a street should be wearing light colored clothing, whether or not at a right-on-red intersection?”

      Really? I don’t even know what to say in response to this.

      Day or night, driving a car is a huge responsibility, and it’s the duty of any person behind the wheel to watch out for other people on foot or on bikes — regardless of what they happen to be wearing.

      • Submitted by Matt Haas on 04/23/2014 - 05:53 pm.

        Not to be picky

        But are you trying to suggest that pedestrians and cyclists bear no responsibility of their own regarding safety? Believe me, for every boneheaded motorist out there there is an equally boneheaded pedestrian wading through traffic, walking on the wrong side of busy thoroughfares, and ignoring walk signs at intersections. I believe the commentor simply intended that it might be prudent for pedestrians to utilize every available option for their personal safety. Obviously for motorists paying attention is a must, but (pardon the pun) its a two way street.

  2. Submitted by Jonathan Ecklund on 04/23/2014 - 12:29 pm.

    Solution already exists.

    That’s what the “No Right Turn on Red” signs are for.

  3. Submitted by Dan Lind on 04/23/2014 - 12:35 pm.

    DT Mpls Boondoggle

    No turn on red + no left turn green arrows on one way streets in DT Mpls is simply asking for complete gridlock. Leaving cars to turn left and right while yielding to pedestrians, bikes and moving traffic – blocking forward progress in many cases – won’t work. As it is right now, I often sit through 7-8 light cycles trying to turn left…

    That said, I agree 100% that the lack of safety of pedestrians and bicyclists crossing intersections with the right of way is a major problem. Just not sure that no turn on red is the solution.

  4. Submitted by Matt Becker on 04/23/2014 - 01:12 pm.

    A simpler solution

    Enforce the laws that are already on the books.

    The no-right-turn-on-red restrictions that already exist at certain intersections are routinely ignored; motorists regularly blow through intersections when the light has been red for a good five count (and often longer); and motorists consistently fail to yield to pedestrians legally crossing with the green.

    New laws are not the answer, law enforcement doing their job is.

  5. Submitted by Richard O'Neil on 04/23/2014 - 02:27 pm.

    “Shouldn’t pedestrians – people – be able to simply be in their community….?”

    Crossing ANY street at any time requires one’s full attention regardless of the law. This is just common sense.

    • Submitted by Todd Adler on 04/23/2014 - 04:09 pm.

      Street Crossing

      It does indeed require your full attention. You never know when some driver who is NOT paying attention will run you over.

      Drivers too should pay attention at all times–that’s just common sense.

      Just yesterday I was crossing Washington when a lady whips into the right turn lane in her nice clean white SUV. She does a cursory look to her left to check for traffic, then lurched ahead to make her turn. It was only at the last second that she looked to the right, saw me, and hit the brakes. I got the hand wave to say she’s sorry, although that wouldn’t have cut it if she had run me down.

      When I got safely to the other side of the street I looked back in time to see her complete her right hand turn–pulling out in front of another car that was coming from the left. He had to brake sharply to avoid hitting her, but she obliviously went on her way.

      As a driver, walker, and biker I certainly would not object to the widespread use of no turn on red. It would be a heck of a lot safer than the system we have now.

      • Submitted by Michael Hess on 04/23/2014 - 11:10 pm.

        Would it Help

        I wonder if street signs would help a driver like that. Perfect example where you could get a false sense of security from signs or prohibitions or rules that bad drivers don’t pay attention to…

        • Submitted by Todd Adler on 04/25/2014 - 07:30 am.


          There’s probably nothing that would help that lady. My guess is she would be distracted just brushing her teeth in the morning.

          At the same intersection yesterday I was nearly bowled over by another car making a right turn. The fact that there might be a pedestrian in the crosswalk never crossed his mind as he whipped around the corner. He was close enough that I could (and did) tap on his trunk as he went by. If you’re close enough for me to touch your car, you’re close enough to see me.

  6. Submitted by George Carlson on 04/23/2014 - 03:48 pm.

    No turn on walk light

    Why not only allow right turns on red only when the “walk” light for pedestrians crossing in front of the turning vehicle is off, i.e., turn on red only when the “don’t walk” light is on? Usually when the walk light is on, the traffic that the right turner is attempting to enter is the heaviest since that traffic has just received the green light. That is when the right turner is is most likely to be preoccupied with the traffic he or she is attempting to enter and most likely to miss seeing a pedestrian entering the cross walk. It is also the time when pedestrians are most likely to be entering the cross walk.

    Since the walk light is part of the traffic signal system, a “no turn on red” light for the driver could be synchronized with the walk light on the cross walk to tell the driver to wait.

    This would allow traffic turning on red to clear the intersection as now, but only within a safer window. It, however, would increase the time the right turner sits at the light but he or she would sit there for a shorter time than if you prohibit turns on red at all times.

  7. Submitted by Steven Bailey on 04/23/2014 - 05:14 pm.

    No right on red or straight on red

    We have an epidemic of people not obeying any traffic laws. On my way into work (NE Minneapolis) there isn’t a day where someone doesn’t completely run a stop sign or red light. It isn’t just where I work either. There isn’t any area of the Twin Cities where you can count on drivers to stop for stop signs or stop lights. As far as right on red most drivers now don’t even slow down at a red light and go right on red whether the way is clear or not. Sadly I have recently seen police at an intersection when a car ran the red almost causing a horrific accident and the officer did nothing.

    • Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 04/24/2014 - 10:26 am.

      Not obeying traffic laws

      Motorists and bicyclists both brake laws. I see huge number of bicyclists who do not stop at stop signs or stop and continue through on red lights. Are they being ticketed for breaking the law?

      • Submitted by Todd Adler on 04/25/2014 - 07:39 am.

        Stop Signs

        We should do like Utah does and have stop signs be optional for bike riders and stop lights yield signs. When you’re in a car it’s a heck of a lot easier to get going again from a stop–you just tap on the gas pedal. It’s a different story for a biker whose propulsion is dependent on her legs.

        Also bikers have 180° unobstructed vision even before they turn their heads. Cars, on the other hand, have rear view mirrors, roof posts, and passengers that create significant blind spots that are hazardous to anyone outside the vehicle.

        A final point to consider: most stop lights don’t even recognize a biker. Unless there’s a car at the stop light too it won’t cycle for the biker. I’ve tested this out at lights on Washington, waiting for the light to change for me while cross traffic wizzes on by. The only alternative is to hop off the bike and hit the pedestrian signal and use the crosswalk. But then people will complain about that too.

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