DC Bans Right Turns at Red Lights: Will Other Cities Follow?

Making a right turn with your car at a red light is a convenient time-saver. Instead of waiting for the light to turn green, a driver can make a right turn when there’s a gap in traffic. It also saves gas. However, this “right-to-red” comes at a cost, for it can lead to injury and death, especially for pedestrians. With this in mind, the District of Columbia recently banned right turns at red lights for nearly all cases starting in 2025. 

District of Columbia passed legislation to eliminate right turns at red lights

Red traffic light on a street, highlighting DC ban on cars from making right turns at red lights
Traffic lights | Hermes Rivera via Unsplash

In early October, the District of Columbia’s council passed the Safer Streets Amendment Act of 2022. The Safer Streets Amendment Act features a bundle of safety measures. A key part of it is the banning of right turns at red traffic lights in virtually all situations.

The reason for the ban is to reduce traffic fatalities, particularly for pedestrians — as well as cyclists. This follows a recent uptick in traffic fatalities in the DC area. In July alone in the District of Columbia, three cyclists died from collisions with motor vehicles. 

The Safer Streets Amendment Act is also a component of the Vision Zero initiative, first initiated in Sweden in the 1990s. The Vision Zero initiative aims to “eliminate all traffic fatalities and severe injuries,” as detailed by Autoweek

The ban reverses the ‘right-to-red’ laws enacted in the 1970s

Two red lights with a sunset, highlighting DC ban on cars from making right turns at red lights
Traffic lights | Mohsen Ameri via Unsplash

While we consider the ability to turn right on red the norm, it wasn’t always this way. The “right-to-red” laws first started becoming more common in the United States in the 1970s.

The original reason for these laws was to reduce fuel consumption following the OPEC oil embargo. Instead of idling their car at a right red light, drivers could make the turn and save gas. For the Energy Policy and Conservation Act of 1975, states must “allow rights on red to receive certain federal funds,” as detailed by StreetsBlog

Why is it dangerous to turn right at a red light?

While turning right on red saves gas, as well as time for drivers, there’s a dangerous trade-off. As drivers watch the vehicle traffic on the left before making a turn, pedestrians step off the curb and cross the street. Often, after seeing a gap on the left, drivers make the turn before checking for pedestrians on the right. This can result in a collision. Cyclists are at greater risk in this scenario as well.

According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), allowing right turns at red lights “increases pedestrian crashes by 60% and bike crashes by 100%.

Will other cities ban right turns at red lights?

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With the DC ban on right turns at red lights and the increased awareness of its dangers, we could see many other cities enact similar bans in the future. Along with DC, New York City has a ban on right turns at red lights, except for some intersections with posted signs. Also, on the same day that the District of Columbia’s council approved the Safer Streets Amendment Act, the city council in Ann Arbor, Michigan, banned right turns at red lights for 50 downtown intersections.

Mary Cheh, chair of the DC Council’s Committee on Transportation and the Environment, said, “As the fuel savings argument for allowing right on red becomes less and less relevant with more efficient cars, hybrids, and EVs, and while traffic violence continues to rise across the country, I would imagine other jurisdictions will make the same common-sense decision we did in the District.”

Along with the right turn on red bans, some municipalities are considering banning cars from cities. Click on the link below for more details.

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