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.