What Would Happen If LA Banned Right-On-Red?

An intersection with cars, and pedestrians in a crosswalk. (Flickr/Creative Commons)

San Francisco officials are exploring an end to right-turns-on-red as a response to the growing number of accidents that happen in crosswalks.

"It's truly not always safe to a pedestrian in that place when you have right turning cars and left turning cars moving across that space," said Amanda Eaken, a San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency board member at a meeting last week.

So what if Los Angeles, where 148 pedestrians and bicyclists died on the streets in 2018, did the same?

L.A. was one of the first American cities to allow the practice of right-turns-on-red in 1925 as a way to alleviate traffic congestion. The practice became legal nationally in the 1970s because there was an energy crisis at the time, and it was thought that Americans would burn less gas if they didn't idle while waiting to turn right.

But that convenience came with a trade-off.

"We allow right turns on red because we assume the best in people. We assume that drivers will obey the traffic laws," says Madeline Brozen, deputy director of the Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies at UCLA. "But the driver that wants to make the right turn — they're looking left. They're looking for that gap in traffic to go. They don't [always] look for pedestrians coming the other way."

Studies that compare the data from traffic intersections that do allow rights-on-red to those that don't are hard to come by. But Brozen notes that NYC was able to reduce pedestrian- and bike-related crashes by 41 percent after the city restricted left turns.

Currently NYC is the only major city where rights-on-red are completely illegal and DC plans to ban them at more than 100 intersections by the end of this year.

But Brozen says it would be a tough sell if Los Angeles officials ever wanted to follow suit. Drivers, for one, might rail against it.

"If you're driving in L.A., I totally get that you're putting up with congestion. You want a little bit of that extra time [not waiting to turn at red lights]," says Brozen.

She adds that an L.A. ban would make the most sense in areas where there is a high-density of people, like downtown L.A. and near Hollywood and Highland.

The proliferation of fuel-efficient vehicles across the state might mean that the energy-saving notion of not stopping on reds might no longer hold up, now that cars will still save energy even if they're idling to turn right.

"Thinking about a way to prioritize pedestrian safety over motorists' convenience is going to have to be a part of meeting California's climate goals," Brozen says.