Turning right when a stoplight is red has been standard operating procedure throughout the nation for close to five decades. While parts of the country implemented right-on-red in the latter part of the fifties, most of the country switched due to the oil embargo in the seventies.
The Energy Policy and Conversation Act of 1975 required all states to allow the new practice or not receive federal highway financing. New York was the only state to refuse, aside from specific Staten Island intersections.
However, that multi-decade habit, while hard to break, may require another look at longtime rules and how they affect road safety. For pedestrians, right on red could have catastrophic consequences.
A dangerous and deadly tradition
The tradition involves arriving at a red light, stopping, and turning on an intersection that seems to clear whether the light is red or green. Turning the corner is akin to a reflex, with many motor vehicle operators not even looking to see if the path is clear.
Turning right causes drivers to look left, not at the crosswalk where walkers and bicycle riders are crossing. The increase in accidents is forcing state and municipal transportation planners nationwide to reconsider the common custom.
Addressing a growing problem
Safety advocates are sounding the alarm over the growing number of deadly collisions and deaths of pedestrians. The Governors Highway Safety Association reported an increase of 18 percent killed by vehicles from 2019 to 2022. Nearly 7,500 pedestrians lost their lives in 2021, the biggest increase in four decades. Just ten states saw fewer walking-related fatalities than the prior year.
Not all fatalities result from longtime habits. Studies found that more drivers were under the influence or significantly distracted. The worldwide coronavirus pandemic saw drivers using empty roads to excessively break speed limit laws and did not bother to slow down for two years.
From coast to coast, cities throughout the United States are considering right-on-red bans or implementing more drastic changes. Washington, D.C., will say farewell to most right-on-red turns starting in 2025. On the other side of the country, Hawaii has already taken action, particularly on roads that tourists fill on a daily basis.