Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Are Right Turns on Red Dangerous for Pedestrians?


As part of the ongoing red light camera debate, we've been hearing assertions that right turn on red (RTOR) violations aren't that dangerous, because collisions due to RTOR violations are generally less severe than other types of crashes. But does this hold true for crashes involving pedestrians? And for that matter, is it true at all? (I'm always skeptical of broad statements--including my own--made without proper references.)

I took a stroll around the internet in hopes of answering those questions, and here's what I found:

The push to allow RTORs began in the mid-1970s as part of a national effort, sparked by the 1975 Energy Policy and Conservation Act, to conserve energy. By the end of the decade, most states had adopted laws allowing the RTOR in most locations. One of the earlier studies examining the safety effects of the new laws was published in late 1980. Adoption of right turn on red: Effects on crashes at signalized intersections showed an increase in crashes when RTORs were allowed, with a 60 percent increase in crashes involving pedestrians (though this large percentage increase could be due, in part, to the relatively low number of right-turn crashes involving pedestrians).

A slightly more recent study (1994) from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration showed that while RTOR crashes represent a very small number of collisions at signalized intersections overall (0.4 percent), these crashes frequently involve bicyclists and pedestrians (22 percent of all RTOR crashes). And although the analysis shows that RTOR crashes rarely result in fatalities (less than one percent of all fatal ped/bike crashes involved RTOR), when a cyclist or pedestrian is involved in a RTOR crash they are nearly always injured.

A1996 evaluation of Pedestrian and Bicycle Crash Types of the Early 1990s from the Federal Highway Administration had similar results, showing that only about two percent of pedestrian crashes involved right turns on red.


More recently, in 2002, some folks in San Francisco conducted a Safety Evaluation of Right Turn on Red within their city. As with the earlier studies, this one found that pedestrian collisions involving RTOR represented only about one percent of all pedestrian crashes in the city.

Finally, you may have noticed that Jay Beeber of Safer Streets LA pointed out in his comments on an earlier post that SWITRS data from 2009 that shows only seven pedestrian collisions out of about 2,700 in LA were due to rolling right turns (I count four, but this could be due to my lack of familiarity with SWITRS data codes).

So what does all this mean? Are RTORs really a problem when they represent so few collisions--and if not, should we stop enforcing RTORs with red light cameras?

What I find most compelling out of all this research is the finding from NHTSA that RTOR crashes involving pedestrians and bicyclists nearly always result in injury (of course, the same could probably be said of most pedestrian crashes). To me, this means RTORs are one--of many--safety problems worth addressing. On the other hand, the low overall number of RTOR crashes suggests that in many locations allowing RTORs is not a problem.

If I ruled the transportation world (oh, if only), my suggestion would be to identify those locations where the RTOR has the biggest potential to impact pedestrian safety--namely, intersections with high amounts of pedestrian traffic. At these locations the RTOR move should be prohibited entirely, and/or enforcement should be increased (via red light cameras, or other means).  This would allow us to focus our limited resources on the intersections where they matter most--and hopefully make a noticeable improvement in our city's pedestrian safety.

3 comments:

  1. I'm one of those people who think RTOR should just be banned, anywhere and everywhere. There may be some circumstances where I'd be OK with police officers looking the other way despite a violation, but it should never be legal. I've had too much experience as a pedestrian avoiding collisions with drivers who aren't looking in the direction they're driving -- they drive directly into my path while looking left. The fact that I haven't been hit is entirely because I expect most drivers turning right on red to behave irresponsibly and adjust my behavior accordingly (and resentfully). So I don't think #s of collisions or injuries tell us anything about how safe the practice is. I also don't think this is an area where any risk is worthwhile -- no benefit to drivers is worth any risk to pedestrians in my mind.

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  2. Katie,

    Thanks for the extremely balanced and well thought out post. I should point out that many of the studies you reference looked at all right turns on red (which are legal if you stop first) and not necessarily rolling right turns on red. Therefore, the number of accidents and injuries caused by rolling right turns are necessarily less than the numbers you found from those studies. Since red-light cameras cite for rolling right turns (and not legal right turns where the driver fails to yield after stopping), and since 75% of the citations in LA are given for this behavior, we would contend that the resources being expended on the program are being wasted by targeting a behavior which is common (hence high revenue) but don’t actually cause very many accidents (low safety impact).

    In contrast to the above studies, we were able to discern which right turn on red violations occurred during a rolling right turn by combining two data sets of the SWITRS database (I believe we are the only ones to do this to date). Combining the databases is a bit complicated but once we figured out how to do it, we were able to find the data we were looking for. And as you note, the results show so few collisions each year that they barely even register in the database. We do believe that there may be some locations with such a high pedestrian traffic pattern that it might make sense to prohibit a right on red, if that would have a significant impact on safety. Our data mining does show that the critical aspect of all this is whether a motorist yields appropriately, whether or not they actually come to a stop first before initiating their turn. Additional signage such as the “right turn yield to pedestrian” sign might also be useful in high foot traffic areas.

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  3. As a pedestrian it is not safe, as most times the car dosent even stop and looks to the left, often spends the entire light blocking the crosswalk as the oncoming traffics is too heavy. Also it causes the driver to be impatient never wanting to stop. I've been hit 5 times as a pedestrian crossing with this stupid law.. Lived in Europe and north America and people here in Canada feel like they have the right to never stop... Montreal banned the rtorl and it's much safer. Also I've seen people in wheelchairs unable to cross as a car trying to turn right blocks the crossing...

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