Turn right on red? As pedestrian deaths rise, U.S. cities are considering bans

CHICAGO (AP) — Sophee Langerman was on her way to a bike safety rally in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood in June when a right-turning car ran a red light and crashed into her bike, sending her flying off the curb and into the crosswalk.

The car moved so slowly that Langerman escaped serious injury, but the bicycle required extensive repairs. For Langerman, this is another argument for ending a practice that nearly all U.S. cities have had for decades: a driver’s legal prerogative to turn right after stopping at a red light.

A dramatic increase in accidents Kill or injure pedestrians and cyclists has led to countless policy and infrastructure changes, but efforts to ban right on red have provoked the most intense feelings on both sides.

The Washington, D.C. City Council approved a right-on-red ban last year that will take effect in 2025. New Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson’s transition plan called for “limiting right turns on red,” but his administration hasn’t provided details. The college town of Ann Arbor, Michigan, now bans right turns at red lights downtown.

San Francisco Leaders recently voted to urge their transit authority to impose a citywide ban on running red lights, and other major cities such as Los Angeles, Seattle and Denver have also considered bans.

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“Drivers shouldn’t have the ability to decide when they think it’s safe,” said Langerman, 26. “People are busy. People are distracted.”

But Jay Beeber, executive director of policy at the National Motorists Association, a motorist advocacy group, called it a “fallacy” to assume that such blanket bans would make roads safer.

He cited a forthcoming study by his association that analyzed California crash data from 2011 to 2019 and found that drivers making right turns on red caused only about one pedestrian fatality and fewer than one cyclist fatality every two years statewide .

“What’s really behind this movement is part of the agenda to make driving as miserable and difficult as possible so that people stop driving as much,” Beeber said.

Safety advocates counter that official accident reports are often mislabeled and the number is too low Driven.

The United States is one of the few major countries that generally allows right turns on red. Concerned that cars sitting at a stoplight could worsen an energy crisis, the U.S. government warned states in the 1970s that they could risk some federal funding if cities banned running red lights except in certain ones, clearly designated areas. Although another energy-conscious regulation capping speed limits at 55 miles per hour has long been abandoned, “Right to Red” has prevailed.

“This is an example of bad policy,” said Bill Schultheiss, technical director of Toole Design Group, which advises public transit agencies. “It made sense in the context of the gas crisis, but what it would achieve was greatly exaggerated. It is a mandate that does not take into account all the consequences.”

Driving straight on red has never been legal in most parts of New York City, where large signs warn visitors to Manhattan that the practice is banned there. But until last year’s vote in the nation’s capital, this was standard policy virtually everywhere in the United States.

Safety advocates who have pushed for the change in Washington, D.C., face pushback from motorists, especially when the city also allows the so-called Idaho Stop, which allows cyclists to run a red light after stopping to ensure that they on the coast remain clear.

“As far as public opinion goes, there are just some fights where you have to be content to sacrifice that for people’s safety,” said Jonathan Kincade, communications coordinator for the Washington Area Bicyclists Association. “It makes no sense to treat cars and bicycles the same. It’s not the same vehicle and we’ve seen the consequences of that.”

Critics argue that a ban on running red lights will not only inconvenience drivers, but will also slow down commuter buses and delivery drivers. The United Parcel Service has not taken an official position on the right-on-red principle, but has long instructed its drivers to avoid left turns whenever possible, viewing them as inefficient.

Priya Sarathy Jones, deputy executive director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center, fears that penalties from right-on-red driving bans will disproportionately affect low-income drivers who have to drive to work because they can’t find accommodation in the area close to public transport. If there were more checks at red lights, more cameras would certainly follow, she said. And in the Chicago area, any discussion of red light policy often brings back memories of the region’s vilified red light camera program, which has led to bribery allegations against officials accused of trying to influence highly profitable contracts.

“It generates a lot of money for the city, rather than having our decisions driven by evidence-backed safety strategies,” she said, noting that road infrastructure improvements would be a much more effective way to reduce crashes.

There are no current nationwide studies on how many people are injured or killed by right-turning drivers.

According to a national report from the Governors Highway Safety Association, more than 7,500 pedestrians were struck and killed by cars in 2022, the highest number since 1981. The peak, the including all accidents — not just those involving right turns on red, has been attributed in part to the increase in larger vehicles like SUVs and pickup trucks on the road.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that a pedestrian is 89% more likely to be killed when struck by a right-turning car in a pickup truck and 63% more likely in an SUV because of the blind spot larger and more deadly is the force associated with heavier models.

“These big, blunt front hoods are knocking people down and running over them, as opposed to before when people would collapse on the hood,” said Mike McGinn, a former mayor of Seattle and executive director of America Walks, a national nonprofit that promotes pedestrian-friendly walks districts used.

Much of the research directly addressing the effects of right-on-red policies is years, if not decades, old, but both sides argue they are still relevant.

In a 1994 report to Congress, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration examined four years of crash data from Indiana, Maryland and Missouri, as well as three years of data from Illinois, and counted a total of 558 injury crashes and four fatalities caused by right-turns on red, advocates of a ban indicate that the study was conducted before the country’s vehicle fleet became much larger and deadlier.

But Beeber said the National Motorists Association study in California found that even in an accident involving right turns on red, at least 96% of injuries to pedestrians or cyclists were minor.

“One injury or one death is too many,” said Washington state Sen. John Lovick, the lead sponsor of a bill this year that would have banned the right to wear red near schools, parks and certain other places statewide. “If I were at that intersection, I would want something done.”

Lovick’s bill didn’t make it out of committee, but Seattle has made it standard policy this year to ban the right to red when introducing new traffic signals.

Melinda Kasraie testified on behalf of Lovick’s bill at a hearing and recounted her experience when she was hit by a car making a right turn on a red light in Seattle. She needed a total knee replacement, had to quit her job of 20 years and moved to a small town, in part because she had a newfound fear of crossing the street.

“He only had to wait 20 seconds before he would have gotten the green light, and those 20 seconds made a big impression on me,” Kasraie said.

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Brian Ashcraft

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