OPINION: Atlanta’s no right turn on red - a plan to solve a nonproblem

Pedestrians walk on Peachtree on Wednesday, July 12, 2023 in Atlanta. (Michael Blackshire/Michael.blackshire@ajc.com)

Credit: Michael Blackshire

Credit: Michael Blackshire

Pedestrians walk on Peachtree on Wednesday, July 12, 2023 in Atlanta. (Michael Blackshire/Michael.blackshire@ajc.com)

Soon, the Atlanta City Council in its wisdom will almost certainly make it illegal for drivers to turn right on red in a large swath of the city.

A proposed ordinance working its way through the transportation committee — and sponsored by just about the whole council — would ban such turns in Downtown, Midtown and Castleberry Hills.

The stated reason is, of course, safety. The city has in recent years enacted Vision Zero, which aims to reduce all car-related deaths.

In 2022, 38 pedestrians were killed within the city limits, a 23% increase from 2021, “and a full 52% more than in 2020,” according to a report from Propel ATL, the new name for Atlanta’s biking organization.

Proponents of the ordinance argue that folks turning right on red are often too focused on traffic coming from their left to worry about pedestrians crossing on their right. They also argue that drivers of behemoth SUVs and pickup trucks can barely see over their dashboards to spot the pedestrians they’re about to run over.

Council member Jason Dozier, the lead sponsor of the bill, recently told the AJC that he’s focusing on areas that have the most pedestrians.

“When you allow for right turns at red lights, motorists tend to creep into the crosswalk to look for oncoming cars or their opportunity to go,” he told my colleague Riley Bunch. “Which creates safety issues for pedestrians and cyclists.”

Pedestrians and cars pass travel along Peachtree Street in July. AJC

Credit: TNS

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Credit: TNS

As I said, the ordinance is aimed at only three areas in the city. But mark my words, it won’t be long until it creeps city wide, because biking and walking and safety advocates will push for it to expand. If fact, they already are. Soon, motorists will be left stewing in lines at intersections waiting to turn with nobody anywhere near the corner.

The no turn on red legislation is being pushed in progressive cities across the U.S. and the ordinance reflects the new verbiage concerning automobiles: “WHEREAS, since 2010, over 3,000 Atlanta families have been impacted by traffic violence,” referring to events formerly called “crashes” or “accidents.”

In 1975, the federal government started allowing right turns on red lights to help keep traffic flowing and to save gasoline. This was following the Arab oil embargo crisis.

Atlanta’s proposed ordinance also mentions a 42-year old Ohio study that said “collisions rose 57% for pedestrians and 80% for cyclists” since the feds let Americans turn right on red.

The Propel ATL study also says no bicyclists were killed in Atlanta in 2022. The organization says one explanation for this is the city has improved biking infrastructure, as in having created more bike lanes. Also, there are many more pedestrians than bicyclists and, I’d wager that those in Spandex are a lot more careful than those of us just wandering around afoot.

So, with pedestrians at such risk, the city must have some quantification for the new law, right?

Nah, not really. Largely it just sounds good.

A pedestrian was killed Feb. 14, 2022, on a busy road in southwest Atlanta. The body was removed from the scene along Campbellton Road near Adams Park and the Andrew & Walter Young Family YMCA. John Spink/John.Spink@ajc.com


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I asked city officials for any data about pedestrians or bicyclists being killed or injured by vehicles turning right on red in Atlanta. Crickets from the city’s DOT.

Dozier, an earnest first-term council member who’s trying to do good, admitted there’s not a lot out there on the subject.

“Local studies elsewhere found 92% compliance with turn restriction and 70% reduction in crosswalk encroachments,” he told me via text. (That’s encroachments, not fatalities or even injuries.) “So it’s a mixed bag and RTOR is so widespread that there isn’t a ton of data on that specifically.”

Federal data shows that 75% of pedestrian fatalities did not occur at intersections and that darkness, speed and alcohol — both in the driver’s blood, but more often in the pedestrian’s — are usually the cause. Those same stats show about 16% of pedestrian deaths occur at intersections. But pedestrians killed by drivers turning right at red lights, statistics show, are an infinitesimally small number.

Incidentally, a vehicle turning right on a red light usually is starting from a stop, so there is not a lot of speed. And if someone is struck by a car turning red, then that pedestrian is crossing against the light. But I don’t want to be accused of victim-blaming.

One of the largest studies on the subject was in the early 1990s, when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration crunched the numbers. They found “less than 0.2 percent of all fatalities involved a right-turning vehicle maneuver at an intersection where RTOR is permitted.” But the report had to qualify that number because the data “does not discern whether the traffic signal was red.”

So that “less than 0.2 percent” number was certainly lower.

“In conclusion, there are a relatively small number of deaths and injuries each year caused by right-turn-on-red crashes,” the authors found. “Because the number of crashes due to right-turn-on-red is small, the impact on traffic safety, therefore, has also been small.”

Soon, I’m sure someone from the council will engage the motto used when the facts don’t rule the day: “But if this saves just one life. . .”