Should Georgetown Adopt No Turn on Red?

After a tragic spate of pedestrian and cyclist fatalities, Mayor Muriel Bowser recently proposed increasing the number of downtown intersections where no turns on red would be prohibited (among other changes). While welcomed, the announcement was generally received tepidly from safety advocates that demand even more aggressive steps to address unsafe driver behavior. And while the city hasn’t announced where all the new “no turn on red” will go, it was reported that they will be in the central business district, which does not include Georgetown.

But should it?

Allowing turns on red lights was a policy that became popular in the 1970s. It was dressed up as a step to address the energy crisis, under the reasoning that cars will end up idling less and therefore use less gasoline. But there’s not a whole lot of studies that support that argument. And in the mean time it has simply become a right that impatient drivers feel entitled to. (Consider the differing treatment that jaywalking and right-on-red gets. The former is condemned as unsafe, and often used to blame the victim in traffic fatality. The latter is allowed and rarely punished, even when misused. Yet in both cases it is simply a question of a road user surveying the situation and deciding that notwithstanding the default, it is ok to proceed.)

There are several intersections in Georgetown that GM can think of that often see dangerous driving behavior in connection with rights-on-red. Typically this includes drivers doing one or more of the following:

  • Not stopping for the red in the first place
  • Only looking to the left (i.e., looking for a gap in traffic) and not looking to pedestrians who may be about to cross legally from the right
  • Blocking the crosswalk as they inch out looking for a gap

Each of these behaviors is extremely dangerous, but almost never punished. Eliminating turns on red would ideally eliminate this behavior.

GM can think of several intersections in Georgetown where some or all of this behavior is routinely on display. For instance, GM and his daughter have been nearly run over multiple times at the intersection of Reservoir Rd. and Wisconsin Ave. Drivers heading eastbound on Reservoir Rd. view the red light as a flashing yellow, at best. They speed through it, or if Wisconsin Ave. traffic is heavy they’ll simply roll into your way. Other intersections around Georgetown are the same. One more that immediately jumps to GM’s mind is the exit from Georgetown University on to Canal Rd. If you’re walking eastbound on the sidewalk, drivers looking to take a right absolutely do not look right before proceeding.

Of course besides annoying impatient drivers, this switch could have some potentially bad outcomes. Turning right on green when there is heavy pedestrian volume can be difficult, since there may not be any gaps. One solution to this problem is to introduce a green right arrow phase to the light, during which pedestrian crosses would be prohibited. Adding a new phase to a light cycle can cause more congestion, but not necessarily. Traffic studies would be necessary.

Another overriding problem with prohibiting right on red is that in this country drivers simply assume they have a universal right to do so. They often won’t even notice the sign, or when they do they’ll simply ignore it. So more clear signage and increased enforcement would be necessary to make the change effective.

Can you think of other intersections around Georgetown that could use this change?


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4 responses to “Should Georgetown Adopt No Turn on Red?

  1. Cynthia McDonald Anthony

    I think right on red is fine in areas where there is car traffic, but few pedestrians. In cities, with heavy pedestrian traffic, I agree it should be clarified/curtailed. I’m tired of being beeped at by drivers in back of me who seem to think I should pull out and either hit a car coming through a green light, or hit a pedestrian (jaywalking or not, still a pedestrian!). Ditto on turning right on green when pedestrians also have green (and the right of way): The honks behind cars whose don’t want to hit someone can be deafening. Right green arrow for cars, with a red light for pedestrians, would be very helpful in high traffic areas, like turns onto M Street (I believe there already is one turning onto Wisconsin from M).

  2. I don’t think there is a marked pedestrian crosswalk when walking east on the south side of Reservoir to cross Wisconsin. And I don’t think a no-right-turn facing eastbound Reservoir drivers at Wisconsin will be sufficient to protect people in the crosswalk 20 yards down the hill. Too many scofflaws about.

    Ultimately, the pedestrian-friendly solution there is to set up Reservoir’s little jog the same way DDOT has Q St. That will require a new light on the lower jog of Reservoir, and possibly closing off the last bit of 33rd.

    Until then, pedestrians beware!

  3. Bette Mohr

    Many good points to consider. Another related issue is that many bikers do not stop for red lights but plow on through. Should drivers be restricted on right on red turns but bikers be able to ignore lights as it suits them?

    Sent from my iPhone


  4. kerlin4321

    Drivers honking out of impatience, who may or may not be in a position to gauge the situation ahead, can and should be ignored.

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