WASHINGTON, D.C. –– Work crews are slated to begin installing no right turn on red signs at 100 intersections in the busiest sections of the nation’s capital. Under the sea-change, the District will no longer allow traffic turning right to proceed after stopping at intersections in the Central Business District, in and around school zones, near cycle tracks, and in other “high-pedestrian-density” corridors in the city. A registered professional traffic and civil engineer fears the prohibition will make the city more gridlocked, and “will do little to improve traffic safety, compared to other engineering remedies.” Though the city’s output of red-light camera tickets soared to record highs of late, some skeptical District residents also fret banning the vehicle maneuver will fall far short of its promise of reducing right-turning crashes involving pedestrians and cyclists, or collisions involving one vehicle striking another vehicle.
Unlike other cities eyeing the ban, the District is “taking a blanket approach.” It is going “full steam ahead” without weighing a smaller scale pilot project, like Seattle and Alexandria. The District’s no-turns-on-red ban is designed to protect the lives and limbs of school children, the elderly, pedestrians, motorcyclists, and cyclists in all eight wards of the city. The deadline for commuters to comment on the implementation of the ban is today, Tuesday, February 5, 2019. The recently unfurled strategy is part and parcel of the Bowser Administration’s burgeoning catalog of new Vision Zero Initiatives. Ban endorsers say it will make intersections safer and friendlier for pedestrians and cyclists, reduce the overall number of crashes with pedestrians and cyclists at signalized intersections and lessen “conflicts between drivers and pedestrians.”
“It is quite likely such a ban will do little for pedestrian safety,” warned Martin Wallen, P.E., a retired city traffic engineer in Long Beach and Richmond, California. “If the District’s assumptions are not based on current state of the art protocols for traffic safety, the ban could create more conflicts with pedestrians, cause more rear-end collisions at intersections, increase traffic gridlock, decrease travel time reliability, and generate more red-light camera tickets and revenue.”
“We must do everything in our power to change the traffic safety culture in the District. Still, some traffic engineers posit a ban on red light right turns might create an even greater risk for vulnerable users by increasing the frequency and severity of right-turning crashes and rear-end collisions,” said John B. Townsend II, AAA Mid-Atlantic’s Manager of Public and Government Affairs. “To resolve such concerns in regard to prohibiting the maneuver at a large swath of intersections in the city, the District should conduct a comprehensive data-driven analysis that is grounded in good science, ‘particularly with respect to the impact on pedestrian safety.’ We must not forsake educating and engaging the public about creating safer streets.”
Because right-turning incidents represent “a very small percentage of all crashes, deaths and injuries” in the District and all 50 states, as previous studies have shown, some advocates assert the ban is unlikely to increase traffic safety in the nation’s capital. Commuters say banning red light right turns will substantially worsen east-west traffic congestion and trip-making, upend reliable travel times, and delay deliveries in downtown Washington, as motorists are forced to wait longer in traffic until the signal turns green in one of the most congested cities in the nation. Ominously, it would likely decrease traffic safety in the city, some dread, as more motorists speed up to beat changing traffic signals in intersections to avoid being late for work at rush hour or being stuck at signs prohibiting right-turning on red.
The District boasts “1,650-plus traffic signals” and it joins the growing ranks of cities banning right turns on red or reconsidering the traffic maneuver. The District launched the ban to combat an uptick in roadway deaths. DDOT says the “intersections were identified based on crash history, level of pedestrian activity, and other factors.” But Wallen states “this does not necessarily mean a fully competent professional engineering investigation was conducted at each site.” To reassure the public the ban is not arbitrary or willy-nilly, the District should publicly release its findings of facts for each intersection detailed in DDOT’s notice of intent, Wallen recommends.
This disclosure would include all requisite and appropriate engineering reports and traffic and safety impact investigations justifying the right turns-on-red bans at 100 signalized intersections in the nation’s capital. Prohibiting right turns on red would require drivers to turn on green. Sounds safer? Not necessarily. Research shows this could likely increase the number of collisions by right-turning vehicles, because the vehicle would be moving or turning at higher speeds. It would also make the commute unpredictable and increase the amount of time commuters are late to work during peak periods.
Wallen and other professional traffic engineers warn a “right-turn-on-red ban” would likely engender more “rule-breaking” and “probably end up encouraging more people to ignore the signs.” To avoid gridlock and tickets, some right turning drivers will be tempted to run the amber light at higher speeds, causing deadly “right hook” collisions. Typically, threshold vehicle speeds are lower at crosswalks during permissive right turns on red, if the driver comes to a complete stop, as the law requires. In contrast, vehicles turning right on green are “moving nearly at full speed” and the crash impact could be more severe, some researchsuggests.
“Although some pedestrian groups cry for the ban, making a right turn on green means the turning vehicle and pedestrians start their movements at almost the same time on the same green interval,” Wallen explained. “Theoretically, the pedestrian gets started first, and the driver is required by law to stop and yield to pedestrians. But there is a danger it could inadvertently create more unsafe conflicts between right turners and crossing pedestrians, especially if the driver doesn’t see the pedestrian in time due to decision sight distance factors, environmental factors, or intersection engineering and geometric design problems, or if the driver ‘accelerates and passes before a pedestrian arrives at the conflict point.’ Conflict situations can be avoided by yielding to any person on foot.”
Commuters in the city wonder if the ban is well-thought-out. All told, 107,353 traffic crashes occurred in the District in the period from 2013 through 2015, according to the 2016 Traffic Safety Statistics Report for the District of Columbia. Yet making a right turn on red was a factor in only 55 crashes (0.05 percent) in the city during that period. The figures are derived from a Howard University Transportation Research Center analysis of traffic crash reports from the Metropolitan Police Department (MPDC).
“Right turn on red has the potential for reducing rear-end crashes caused by through vehicles having unobstructed passage during the green phase,” Wallen explained. “A vehicle turning right on a green phase, delayed from moving out of the through lane by pedestrian traffic, has a risk of being rear-ended by a driver of a through vehicle, believing the turning vehicle will turn prior to his reaching the intersection.”
The District has issued a record number of red-light camera tickets. Currently, the District has red-light camera systems perched at 48 intersections. Of those intersections, six to nine have red light cameras that also issue tickets to motorists who turn right on red against a sign prohibiting the action. Those cameras work around the clock, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Cumulatively, those cameras issued tickets to 37 drivers caught red-handed making a right hand turn at a red light in an intersection with a sign stating “No Turn on Red.” Of the tens of thousands of motorists ticketed for running a red-light in the city, 0.05 percent were cited for violating “No Turn on Red” signs during Fiscal Year 2018. There is no proof that red-light cameras are necessary to enforce the signs.
If implemented, the District’s turn-on-red ban should be predicated on a data-driven case-by-case basis, including the number of “right hand” crashes, advocates AAA Mid-Atlantic. For example, design changes to the intersection and crosswalk might pay higher dividends than an outright ban. The District must also weigh the impact of the ban on traffic flow, and the movement of people and goods in downtown Washington, notes AAA Mid-Atlantic. As opposed to mitigating congestion, and balancing the needs of all modes of transportation, the plan could increase travel delays, gridlock, and vehicular traffic emissions and make travel times unreliable in one of the most gridlocked cities in the nation and cause drivers to waste more fuel due to traffic congestion. It threatens to disrupt mobility in the District, cautions AAA.
Ironically, the move comes after the District spent millions of dollars on a traffic signal timing optimization project designed to synchronize its 1,652 traffic signals to reduce congestion, improve traffic flow, improve pedestrian safety, reduce the likelihood of red-light running and engender fewer red-light violations. The move could throw a new wrinkle in the citywide multi-year traffic congestion mitigation strategy “aimed at one of drivers’ top complaints: the timing of traffic signals.” Traffic engineers launched the latest phase of the traffic-signal re-timing plan in 2017. “The plan is designed to improve traffic flow, improve pedestrian safety, and reduce transit running times throughout the District,” DDOT touted at the time.
In an article in the ITE Journal, some transportation engineers and planners “take issue with assertions RTORs increase the risk of collision.” The District already suffers from the nation’s worst traffic, “with 82 hours of delay per commuter,” according to a 2015 study conducted by INRIX and the Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI). Left unchecked, the number of lost time in traffic in the District was set to “skyrocket 55 percent” by 2020, if the city maintained the “status quo” the TTI forecast in 2013. The ban of right turns on red would increase rush-hour slowdowns, travel delays, and the cost of transportation within the “gridlocked-plagued” city.
Commuters in the city put up with “highly variable travel time.” The unreliability of travel time can have “real consequences for being late to work (lost job) or to pick up children from childcare (fines),” notes the District Mobility Project. Depending upon the zip code and mode of transportation, daily commute times for District residents to their job sites in the city range from 14.4 minutes to 41.3 minutes, to more than an hour. The average commute time to and from work for District residents is 28.8 minutes, with “residents of southeast Washington DC spending relatively longer time commuting to work.” Research shows it is linked to income and method of transportation, with nine percent of District residents traveling “greater than 60 minutes to get to work,” explains the D.C. Policy Center. In contrast, “the average commute of suburbanites traveling into the District to work is 33 minutes.” That compares to average commute of 32.8 minutes in the Washington metro area, which ranks the third longest among metropolitan areas across the nation.
Many cities have taken a more cautious approach by conducting pilot projects to “study a prohibition of right turns on red lights” at a smaller number of intersections. While the District is imposing the ban at a totality of 100 intersections, on the other side of the Potomac, the city of Alexandria, Virginia is proposing to “install ‘No Turn on Red’ restrictions at 10 intersections.” Likewise, in 2015 Seattle initially banned right turns on red at only 10 downtown intersections deemed the worst for “car-on-pedestrian crashes.” Reportedly, Seattle implemented “10 turns-on-red bans after 143 people were hit by people making turns over the previous three-year period.” Fredericton, the capital of New Brunswick, banned the turns at six downtown intersections. In North America, New York City and Montreal have citywide no right turns on red (NRTOR) policies. The public comment periodends today. DDOT is installing hundreds of no right turns on red signs around town.
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