August 23, 2022

Rethinking the Right Turn on Red

Do you know the history of how vehicle drivers were allowed to turn right at a red light?

And did  you know before fifty years ago while some places allowed drivers to turn right at a red light, nearly half of jurisdictions, including most of the eastern United States did not?

It was the 1973 Oil Crisis and the Energy Crisis of 1979 when fuel costs soared that vehicle drivers and governments looked at reducing energy use nationally. It was Alan Voorhees that did work on the “benefits” of the Right Turn on Red System (RTOR).  As unlikely as it sounds, allowing a driver to turn right on a red light at an intersection saved between 1 and 4.6 seconds of time. This was seen by the National Energy Department as a significant improvement for energy efficiency, and it was recommended that RTOR be implemented nationally.

Besides the time saving, there was a saving in fuel costs that impacted mainly larger vans and trucks. That is why today many courier companies have their trucks only making right turns to reduce idling, and to keep trucks from waiting in the middle of intersections to complete left turns.

Of course there was also the pesky bit of what happens when vehicles are allowed to turn right on red.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) found over 40 years ago that permitting these right turns by drivers increased driver crashes with pedestrians by  60 percent and increased driver crashes with cyclists  by 100 percent. But saving those few seconds of stopping time for vehicle drivers has still been paramount, with even Quebec moving to allowing right turn on red (except in Montreal) in 2003.

In 2015 Toronto Public Health produced a report showing that the right turn on red driving tactic had resulted in 1,300 pedestrian injuries and deaths from 2008 to 2012. That is 13 percent of all serious injuries and deaths due to vehicle driver crashes. Simply prohibiting the right turn on red would alleviate  those injuries and fatalities.

As Councillor Mike Layton recounted “the decision to allow RTOR “had nothing to do with road safety and everything to do with convenience and saving gas.”

You would think in a country that provides universal health care the concept of Vision Zero, allowing no deaths or serious injury on any roads would be of paramount importance. But the right turn on red permission for drivers has been relatively unchallenged, and the injury and death impact of giving drivers priority is underreported.

Take a look below at two articles from British Columbia published thirty years apart discussing allowing drivers the ability to turn right through red lights. The first article was published in the Vancouver Sun in 1953. The second article by Sydney Harris was published in the Victoria Times Colonist in 1981.

Here we are 40 years later, supposedly championing sidewalk users and cyclists in cities, and still giving vehicle drivers that few seconds of priority with red light turns. At what cost?


Right turn on red Vancouver 1953Right turn on red Vancouver 1953 14 Jul 1953, Tue The Vancouver Sun (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada)




Times Colonist Victoria May 5, 1981Times Colonist Victoria May 5, 1981 05 May 1981, Tue Times Colonist (Victoria, British Columbia, Canada)


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  1. Try mentioning on any internet forum that this is something that needs to go and watch the spittle fly.

    Side note: I realized the other day that in general we talk about cars doing something bad, e.g. “car runs over pedestrian, killing them”. But it’s always “a cyclist ran a stop sign” or “a pedestrian jaywalked”.

    Our entire language divorces the machine from the person in the context of car drivers. I noticed I was doing this too and have started making an effort to always refer to car drivers doing stupid stuff, instead of cars.

  2. It’s true that laws and regulations often save us from ourselves, but is it necessary in this case? The rule of stopping at a red light and only proceeding when safe, by definition, should prevent a collision. Further, if BOTH parties involved were paying attention, it would dramatically reduce the likelihood of a collision. Studies have determined that distracted driving causes accidents – I suggest distracted walking/biking does the same. The article talks about drivers abusing the situation – why not focus on correcting that behaviour with appropriate enforcement before layering on more regulation?

    1. The problem with “right-on-red” is that drivers are more concerned about other drivers than pedestrians or cyclists.

      Stand at ANY intersection and observe driver behaviour, they rarely come to a stop at the stop line, but instead in the middle of the pedestrian crossing or bike lanes. Waiting for a gap in car traffic before proceeding.

      There simply is no good reason for car drivers to be privileged in this situation outside of “I am entitled to my entitlement” mindset.

    2. A cop on every corner? Most people don’t commit murder, either, but it’s generally prohibited for a good reason. Banning RTOR loses us only the perception of immediate convenience. It gains us a lot of people who would otherwise be dead and permanently crippled.

  3. Actually, without the ability to turn right on red, in Vancouver anyway, right turns would be more dangerous as there would be no time available to turn right when the light was green as pedestrians consume the entire green period. The best solution would be no turning on red coupled with a 5 second span on green whereby pedestrians could not cross.

    1. This would be nice. It would also solve the problem of the pedestrian countdown signals that few pedestrians understand (as they race out with 2 seconds on the clock). I say this as a cyclist who is often stuck behind cars who were never able to turn right with the way things currently work.

    1. But what if there are no cyclists or pedestrians in the intersection? Does it still make sense to prohibit right turns then?

  4. What about left turn on one-way streets on the red light❓❓
    As long as you have inattention
    By users of the road you’re going to have accidents whatever the rules may or may not be people who wear dark clothing in the winter

  5. You can’t turn left on red in Australia (you drive on the left, right?). My sense it has more to do with the speed of the cars that any concerns for pedestrians, or for cyclists who are a very small, brave minority.

  6. Not to mention one of the main issues with right turn on red is when it is further incentivized with a dedicated right turn slip lane, at which point the pedestrian is at the mercy of a speeding motorist who hasn’t had to stop with the intersection traffic in front. Instead they are in a separate lane off to the side with a yield only condition.

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  7. Yes it would prevent injurys and some deaths if you could not turn right on a red. Drivers are more concerned about being hit by other cars coming from the left as that is a danger to THEM. Pedestrians are not dangerous to the driver.(we are talking “brain stem” survival instinct or in other words “thoughtless”)

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