Rules of the Road

Do you have to come to stop when making a ‘free right turn on red?’

The Right Turn on Red is legal in Washington staate, but it should be considered an option with risks. Taking that right turn requires more than just a cursory stop.
The Right Turn on Red is legal in Washington staate, but it should be considered an option with risks. Taking that right turn requires more than just a cursory stop. Modesto Bee

Question: In other states in which I have lived, cars are required to come to a complete stop before turning right on a red light.

However, here so many cars do not stop; I was wondering if the law is different here?

I did a very unscientific survey at an intersection I regularly crossed and found about half of the cars did not stop. Police did better, with only one-third that didn’t. One group I must compliment is city buses; I never saw one not stop. The one semi that I saw at the intersection did not stop.

Answer: Most drivers are probably familiar with the expression, “free right on red.” However, if you were to ask a room full of economists, I’m pretty sure they’ll tell you that nothing is free. I’ll get to one of the costs of the “free” right on red in a moment, but first let’s review the law.

You won’t actually find the phrase “free right on red” in the law or in the Washington Driver Guide. Instead, it is more accurately called “Right Turn on Red” or RTOR.

Here’s what the driver guide says: “If you are turning right, you may turn after coming to a full stop if it is safe and if there is no sign prohibiting the turn on a red light.” I’ve quoted the driver guide instead of the Revised Code of Washington because it’s a much easier read, but they both state the same thing: you have to come to a full stop before making a right turn at a red light.

I don’t think I’m surprising too many people with that information. Washington drivers should know we’re supposed to stop at a red light before making a right turn, but based on the research of our question-asker, some of us have been neglecting that rule.

The RTOR hasn’t always been the rule, and it had an unusual path to nationwide acceptance. Until the early 1970s, most states didn’t allow a right turn on a red light. Washington was one of the exceptions; as far back as 1965 (and possibly earlier – that’s the oldest reference I could find) the RTOR was legal.

By 1973 the U.S. was in the midst of an energy crisis. The Department of Energy did some research and determined that by allowing a right turn on a red light it would save drivers between one and five seconds. They calculated how many seconds that would be across the country and decided that we’d save a bunch of fuel by legalizing the RTOR.

In 1975 the federal government required states to legalize RTOR in order to receive certain kinds of federal funds. You might appreciate the Department of Energy’s efforts to save fuel at every turn (pun intended) but there were some unintended consequences.

By 1980 all 50 states had legalized RTOR. By the early 1980s the researchers were seeing the impact, primarily to pedestrians and cyclists. One analysis found that in intersections where right turns were allowed at red lights, total crashes increased by 23 percent, pedestrian crashes increased 60 percent and cyclist crashes increased 100 percent.

Although RTOR crashes make up a very small percentage of traffic fatalities, over half of those fatalities are pedestrians and cyclists.

These crashes happen because drivers are looking left for a gap in traffic and fail to look right for people crossing the street in the crosswalk.

The RTOR is legal, but it should be considered an option with risks. Taking that right turn requires more than just a cursory stop or worse, such as in the examples in the original question. Even though you’re only dealing with vehicle traffic from one direction, remember to look both ways, checking specifically for bikes and walkers.

Also, RTOR is an option, not a requirement. Don’t feel like you have to make that turn if you’re not comfortable with the situation, and if you’re behind someone that’s not taking a right turn on a red light, be patient.

In addition to changing our driving habits, maybe we also need to change our language a bit. Considering the costs, especially to vulnerable road users, it might be time take the “free” out of “free right on red.” After all, free is just two syllables away from free-for-all. That might sound alright at a chocolate convention, but it’s not great on the road.

Road Rules is a regular column on road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices. Doug Dahl is the Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit Ask a question.

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