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More cities are banning right turns on red in response to rising pedestrian deaths

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Turning right on a red light can cut a few seconds from your commute. But more U.S. cities, including the nation's capital, are hitting the brakes on right on red. NPR's Ally Schweitzer asked why.

ALLY SCHWEITZER, BYLINE: I'm in D.C.'s Eastern Market neighborhood in the thick of morning rush hour. D.C. councilmember Charles Allen walked here to meet me.

CHARLES ALLEN: Good morning. Good morning.

SCHWEITZER: Allen looks around and sees people commuting in lots of different ways.

ALLEN: We're right on top of the metro station. We've got a bus lane with a bike lane, folks walking kids to school and then lots of car traffic as well.

SCHWEITZER: There's a lot going on. In this part of town, you'll also see signs telling drivers no turn on red. That means drivers can't cruise through the crosswalk to turn right when the light is red. They have to wait for a green. Councilmember Allen, who chairs the D.C. council's transportation committee, says that rule will apply almost everywhere in the city starting next year.

ALLEN: If I am driving two tons of steel, or I am on a bike or I'm on foot, we know who wins that conflict every single time.

SCHWEITZER: Cities including San Francisco and Cambridge in Massachusetts have also limited right turns on red as a response to rising pedestrian deaths. The number of pedestrians killed by cars in the U.S. reached a 40-year high two years ago, according to the Governor's Highway Safety Association. But Jay Beeber has been fighting to keep right turns on red. He's with the National Motorist Association.

JAY BEEBER: There's very little to be gained from banning this maneuver.

SCHWEITZER: Beeber says right turns on red just aren't that dangerous. Federal data backs him up. Ten pedestrian deaths in the U.S. were linked to drivers making the turns 2018 and 2022. So Beeber suspects that the bans actually stem from a cultural shift.

BEEBER: There is a movement in this country to try to move people away from using their personal automobiles. So they just want your travel by car to be a little bit more difficult in the hope that they can get you to switch to another mode of transportation.

SCHWEITZER: Right turns on red became common during the 1970s fuel crisis. The government required states to allow the turns to cut back on idling. But some officials say, today, the turns just don't make sense in congested areas. Dean Preston is a city supervisor in San Francisco. That's where one busy neighborhood, the Tenderloin, experimented with banning right turns on red a few years ago.

DEAN PRESTON: We saw an 80% decrease in close calls and a 70% decrease in vehicles blocking or encroaching the sidewalks during red lights.

SCHWEITZER: And he says most drivers complied with the new rule. Now San Francisco is banning them in other places. That means soon the California city could look a little more like Preston's hometown on the East Coast, New York City, where right turns on red have always been prohibited.

Ally Schweitzer, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Ally Schweitzer
Ally Schweitzer (she/her) is an editor with NPR's Morning Edition. She joined the show in October 2022 after eight years at WAMU, the NPR affiliate in Washington.