Right- and Left-Turn-on-Red Laws
By Dona Sauerburger, COMSĀ®
May, 1997 Newsletter
Metropolitan Washington Orientation and Mobility Association (WOMA)

One of the banes of our existence is the Right-Turn-on-Red-Law, although this law is often incorrectly cited as the cause of another (worse) problem -- that of cars turning to their right and crossing the path of pedestrians from the parallel street (these troublesome folks are executing a right-turn-on-green).

The reason that the Right-Turn-on-Red-Law (RTOR) has made street crossing more difficult for blind pedestrians is that they can no longer recognize that the light is in their favor as soon as any vehicle on the parallel street surges forward into the intersection; they must now wait to be sure it is not turning right.

Richard Compton shares with us some history about this law, and the status of the Left-Turn-on-Red laws, which have important implications for our students. He is Science Advisor for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's Office of Research and Traffic Records. His information was brought to our attention by O&Mer Mike Corbett on the OandM listserv.

Compton says that in 1975 an Energy Policy and Conservation Act was signed into law partly in response to the oil shortage. It essentially required states to adopt a RTOR law if they wished to continue to qualify for Federal energy assistance. This forced them to adopt what was then known as the "Western Rule"-- a permissive right-turn-on-red (that is, RTOR is allowed at every intersection unless expressly prohibited by a sign, as opposed to the previous rule prohibiting RTOR unless expressly allowed by a sign at the intersection.).

As a result, all states now have laws permitting a right turn on red, after coming to a complete stop, when safe (that is, there is no cross traffic or pedestrians or bicyclists who have the right-of-way), unless prohibited by sign. However, a few cities such as New York City may have ordinances more generally prohibiting right-turn-on red.

In 1992, The Energy Policy and Conservation Act was amended in the Energy Policy Act of 1992. The 1992 law contained a requirement that in order for states' energy conservation plans to be eligible for Federal assistance, they must permit both Right- and Left-Turn-on-Red where safe and practicable. The Left-Turn-on-Red law would permit drivers to turn left from a one-way street onto a one-way street at a red light after stopping.

In 1994, Richard Compton did a survey for his report, "Safety Impact of Permitting Right-Turn-On-Red," which showed that 43 states had statutes that explicitly authorized left-turn-on-red from a one-way street to a one-way street (the report is available from their web site: http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov/). All states were supposed to comply by 1995 to avoid penalties, but Compton doesn't know whether or not they all have done so. He states that most motorists are not aware that they can turn left on red because there has been very little publicity about it.

However it is very important for us to make sure that our students know of this law and its implications for street crossings. At intersections of two one-way streets, blind people can no longer rely on left-turning cars to indicate when the signal is in their favor, because the drivers may be permitted to turn left there on red.

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