SEATTLE — For nearly five decades, drivers in much of the United States have taken for granted a privilege unknown in much of the rest of the world: Arrive at a red light, stop, and if the intersection is clear, turn right even if the signal isn’t green.
But as states have seen traffic fatalities and pedestrian deaths climb in recent years, many jurisdictions are reconsidering right turns on red. Now, safety advocates are urging state and municipal transportation planners to reconsider a custom so deeply ingrained that few drivers remember a time when it wasn’t allowed.
“It’s an easy change to make that should be made in more places,” said Mike McGinn, a former Seattle mayor and executive director of America Walks, an advocacy organization for walkable communities.
Washington, D.C., will end most right-on-red turns by 2025. Already, the state of Hawaii has prohibited them on a tourist-dense stretch of road in Honolulu. The city of Berkeley in California is considering banning right on red at all intersections. Near the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, the city last fall banned right turns at 50 signalized intersections in its downtown core.
And Washington state this year considered but ultimately never held a vote on a bill that would have banned right turns on red near schools, day care centers, parks and other zones with heavy foot traffic — or where older adults, children and people with disabilities are likely to need more time to cross streets safely.
The practice is such a habit for most drivers that they don’t even stop or look to the right as they approach signaled intersections, McGinn said. Pedestrians face particular risk at intersections where drivers creep into the crosswalk.
“The person turning right is probably looking left at the traffic that might be coming,” McGinn said. “And they’re not looking at the crosswalk where there might be a pedestrian or bicyclist. So, you’re really putting the pedestrian or bicyclist in a bad spot. They’ve got a walk signal, or they have a green light, and they think it’s safe to go.”
Yet many barriers remain. It’s difficult to change driving habits, the restrictions may not be helpful in rural areas or at some quieter intersections, new signage is expensive, and slowing traffic could increase emissions, fuel consumption and travel time for drivers.
Pedestrian deaths continue to rise. An analysis released last month by the Governors Highway Safety Association found that in the U.S., deaths of people killed by cars while walking rose an estimated 18% between 2019 and 2022.
An estimated 7,485 pedestrians were struck and killed by drivers in 2021, the most recent full year of statistics available. It was the largest number in four decades, according to the association, which represents state highway safety offices. Only 10 states had fewer pedestrian deaths than the previous year.
Deaths spiked for several reasons. Drivers were more likely to drive impaired or distracted, according to the association. During the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, drivers sped up with fewer cars on the road, but they never slowed down through the next couple years, a study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found.
Some states allowed right turns on red as early as the late 1950s, but for most of the country, the practice has its roots in the oil embargo of the 1970s. That’s when the Energy Policy and Conservation Act of 1975 mandated that states allow right turns at red signals. To receive federal highway money, states were required to adopt what was then seen as a fuel conservation measure. Right on red remains the law of the land in most of the U.S., unless prohibited by signage. (Turning right on red was never adopted in New York City, outside of certain intersections on Staten Island.)
Safety studies remain limited because right on red is so widespread, and traffic experts have little data to analyze. But the studies that are emerging are beginning to show that limiting the practice can reduce crashes and close calls, and that drivers accommodate to the prohibition.
In San Francisco in 2021, the city posted signs prohibiting right turns on red at more than 50 intersections in the Tenderloin neighborhood. A city study found that 92% of vehicles comply with the turn restriction. It also showed that vehicles were much less likely to block or encroach on crosswalks.
A study by the District Department of Transportation in Washington, D.C., found that when the city banned right on red at 100 intersections in 2018, most drivers complied and there were fewer conflicts between pedestrians and vehicles. New signage proved to be a “low-cost safety tool” that will help reduce pedestrian deaths, the study concluded.
In Washington state, the ban on right turns was among a package of safety bills under consideration this year to address the rise in traffic fatalities. Even when a collision doesn’t kill pedestrians, the trauma of injury can linger, Vicky Clarke of Washington Bikes, told lawmakers in February at a hearing of the House Transportation Committee.
“Almost every crash, even if not life-threatening, is life-changing,” Clarke said.
Among those testifying in support of the legislation was Melinda Kasraie, who described how a driver struck her five years ago while she was in a crosswalk in Seattle’s University District. The area, always crowded with pedestrians, was even busier at noon on a Sunday because of a University of Washington football game.
“I waited for the light to turn red, I waited for every car to come to a complete stop, I had a walk sign,” Kasraie said. “I took two steps, and I got hit by a car turning right on red. I went up over the hood, landed hard, and then slid down off the side.”
Kasraie said she spent 24 weeks in a wheelchair while her bones fused together, and then graduated to a walker and a cane. She was someone who enjoyed walking — and she said she’d never owned a car. But after the crash, she gave up her job as a special needs aide in public schools and begin accessing her Social Security benefits at 62, several years before anticipated. She left Seattle for a smaller town with less traffic and fewer dangerous intersections.
“I do know this accident could have been much worse, and I’m very grateful it wasn’t,” Kasraie told lawmakers, choking back tears as she spoke. “But five years later, I’m still anxious to cross the street. … I did everything right when I crossed that street. And I still got hit by a car. … He just needed to wait 20 more seconds, and he would have had a green light. That 20 seconds made a big impact on me.”
The proposed legislation drew skepticism from Washington lawmakers who represent less congested or rural areas, and who questioned the value of blanket rules. “A lot of people make these right-hand turns, which speed traffic along,” Rep. Mike Volz, a Republican from Spokane, said at the hearing.
The bill is unlikely to get a floor vote this legislative session. Nonetheless, cities within Washington can still change individual intersections. In Seattle, the city’s Department of Transportation last year began activating traffic enforcement cameras at eight congested locations. The cameras automatically send tickets to drivers who “block the box” by impeding cross traffic and pedestrians by stopping in crosswalks and intersections where the light is not in their favor. The first ticket comes with a warning; subsequent violations carry a $75 fine.
For the D.C. Council, ending right on red at most intersections was a straightforward solution that didn’t involve spending a lot of money, said Colin Browne, the communications director for the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. Signage doesn’t involve a lot of complicated rulemaking or re-engineering, Browne said. It’s just, “Hey, you can’t do this anymore,” he said. That said, many drivers in the city come from Virginia or Maryland, where the law is different, and the changes come with a public education campaign.
Transportation planners can do plenty to make streets safer beyond banning right on red, said Jeff Speck, a city planner and the author of “Walkable City.” He’s an advocate for replacing some signaled intersections with all-way stop signs, which studies have shown can reduce collisions “precipitously,” Speck said in an email.
Other options include timing walk signals, so pedestrians have more lead time to cross intersections, building curb bump-outs that make people more visible to drivers, and developing road rules such as Seattle’s that prohibit drivers from blocking the box.
The bipartisan infrastructure law Congress enacted in 2022 included language requiring states to conduct what are known as “vulnerable road user safety assessments” in their transportation safety improvement programs. Some of the language guiding planners on pedestrian safety is “particularly powerful,” said Carly Haithcock, a transportation engineer with Nelson/Nygaard in Austin, Texas.
The law asks state transportation officials to anticipate and accommodate human errors, Haithcock said, by proactively identifying safety risks and building in redundancy. There’s also language in the legislation that calls on everyone who designs, builds, manages and uses the system to share responsibility for safety. Haithcock is advising a California city that’s reconsidering its right-on-red policies after a driver in a commercial vehicle struck and killed a child in an intersection.
“So, if you think about right turn on red, you’re not anticipating and accommodating a human error,” she said. “If you ignore it, you’re not proactively identifying safety risk.”
Haithcock added that she was “happy to see ‘among all who design, build and manage,’ because I think a lot of it does get blamed on, ‘Oh, drivers are really bad and human error.’ But we’re also asking people to drive on these streets that we’ve designed poorly, and then blame it on them when they don’t do a good job.”
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