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News / Northwest

Washington was first state to legalize right turns at red light. New House bill could reverse that

By Jared Gendron, The News Tribune
Published: February 27, 2023, 12:55pm

OLYMPIA — For decades, American drivers have been able to take a free right turn at a red light, shortening intersection wait times. Washington was the first state to enact this practice back in the late ‘50s, and the rest of the country followed suit in the following decades. But now, Washington might be the first state to reverse the traffic law at specific designated areas.

A House bill is gaining traction this legislative season in Olympia, proposing that right turns on red be banned near regions with high foot traffic. The bill, first introduced to the House floor in late January, aims to increase safety for pedestrians at certain public locations.

Here’s what to know about Washington’s bill.

U.S. and Washington traffic safety

The Washington bill comes during a time of record-breaking traffic fatality and injury rates in the U.S., per data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Traffic fatalities were at a 16-year high nationwide in 2021. In Washington state, 745 people were killed in vehicle crashes in 2022, the most since 1990, according to a recent release from the state’s traffic safety commission.

A focal point of the discussion on traffic safety emphasizes pedestrian welfare. Data from 2022 released by the Governors Highway Safety Association reveals other dangerous trends. Pedestrian deaths hit a 40-year peak in 2021.

Proponents of banning right turns on red point to data revealing decreases in traffic-related collisions. For instance, a 2022 study from the District Department of Transportation examined how drivers responded to no-turn-on-red signage, also called NTOR laws, at 100 intersections in Washington, D.C. Researchers concluded that collisions between vehicles dropped by 97%. There was also a 92% reduction in drivers who failed to yield to pedestrians at a red light.

WA House bill

Washington House Bill 1582 aims to prohibit drivers from making a right turn on red within 1,000 feet from certain facilities. Specifically, a driver at a red signal can’t take a right turn near these areas:

  • Elementary or secondary school
  • Child care center
  • Public park or playground
  • Recreation center or facility
  • Library
  • Public transit center
  • Hospital
  • Senior center
  • Other facilities “with high levels of pedestrian traffic as determined by the appropriate local jurisdiction or the department of transportation”

The bill also states that local transportation departments must implement signage to indicate where right turns are prohibited. It also instructs the Washington State Traffic Safety Commission to develop a public awareness campaign to educate state residents about these new traffic guidelines. As of the time of reporting, the bill doesn’t note a projected campaign cost.

Are right turns illegal outside of WA?

Only a few cities currently have no turn on red laws. For instance, you can’t make a right turn on red in New York City unless there’s a sign permitting it, according to the New York state Department of Motor Vehicles. New York City banned the traffic maneuver in 1937.

Recently, other metropolitan cities in the U.S. have been interested in banning right turns on red. One such place is Ann Arbor, Michigan, which banned the vehicle maneuver at certain intersections in October 2022. Similarly, Washington, D.C. enacted guidelines at dozens of intersections in December.

Right turns on red have been legal in every state since the 1970s and early ‘80s because U.S. officials believed it would help conserve energy. Drivers would be waiting less time at intersections and thus burn less fuel per trip. The widespread decision came about around the time of the 1973 oil crisis.