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A driver’s case for banning right turns on red lights

The reason why drivers should want to see the end of right turns on red.

Entering Montreal on Autoroute 20, with a sign reminding motorists of the blanket ban on right turns on red on Montreal Island

During the August long weekend, my spouse and I rented a car and drove to Montreal. Normally, I take the train, as it’s a long and boring drive on Highway 401, while VIA Rail offers a quiet, relaxing, and more interesting ride. But with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, driving seemed like a good idea. (In doing so, I finally drove the entire length of Highway 401 — I had not yet done the section between Cornwall and the Quebec border).

Despite Montreal’s infamous potholes, never-ending construction, and stereotypically aggressive motorists, I found driving around the city less stressful than in my own home city of Toronto. It may sound counter-intuitive, but a big reason for this was the city’s blanket ban on right turns on red.

Outside of North America, turning movements on red lights are generally prohibited. They were only widely introduced to the United States as part of an energy-saving measure in the 1970s, as a response to the first oil shock; a regulation was written into a 1975 federal bill that provided federal aid to states provided that they permit right turns on red lights (along with carpool programs and energy, thermal, and lighting efficiency measures), though many western US states had such laws on their books much earlier.

U.S. Energy Policy and Conservation Act, 1975, Section 362(c)

Each proposed State energy conservation plan to be eligible for
Federal assistance under this part shall include —
 (1) mandatory lighting efficiency standards for public buildings
 (except public buildings owned or leased by the United States);
 (2) programs to promote the availability and use of carpools,
 vanpools, and public transportation (except that no Federal funds
 provided under this part shall be used for subsidizing fares for
 public transportation);
 (3) mandatory standards and policies relating to energy efficiency
 to govern the procurement practices of such State and its political
 subdivisions;
 (4) mandatory thermal efficiency standards and insulation
 requirements for new and renovated buildings (except buildings owned
 or leased by the United States); and
 (5) a traffic law or regulation which, to the maximum extent
 practicable consistent with safety, permits the operator of a motor
 vehicle to turn such vehicle right at a red stop light after
 stopping.

The Province of Quebec was the last subnational holdout in North America, permitting the practice in 2003. However, the City of Montreal continued to outlaw turns on red, following New York City’s continued prohibition, while Mexico City introduced a new prohibition in 2018.

North Americans may have given up the small cars that they began driving in the 1970s in favour of SUVs and aggressively styled pickup trucks (whose proportions and poor sightlines increase the danger to pedestrians), but we continue to cling to the right turn on red as a matter of convenience.

In my experience, though, I found driving less stressful when I knewI could not turn on red. I did not have to worry about a driver behind me inching forward, pressuring me to move past the stop line and into the intersection so they could turn. If I was waiting to turn right, I knew I could relax and wait for the green signal before I had to try to make the maneuver. The leading pedestrian interval common in central Montreal (which also allows through traffic — including cyclists — to go first) made pedestrians easier to see and predict as I was making my turn.

Montreal’s leading pedestrian interval signal

I might have saved a minute or two on each car trip had I been able to turn on a red light. But it did not feel like much of a difference. The reduced stress was worth it.

As a pedestrian and as a cyclist, I appreciated turn-on-red prohibitions whenever I was in a city where they are in place, as I did not have to worry about right-turning motorists not seeing me as I crossed at a street corner, or those motorists who rush red lights or refuse to stop before turning. As a driver, I appreciated it too.

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