Should Seattle Ban Turning Right on Red?

By Josh Cohen July 15, 2010

(photo from

I learned something new this morning: the right turn on red (RTOR) is as American as apple pie and baseball. Sure there are other places in the world that allow it, but there are more (most notably the entire European Union) that outright ban it unless otherwise noted. Bicycle Alliance of Washington board member Ted Inkley recently argued on the Alliance blog that Seattle should take a lesson from the EU and ban RTORs as well.

Inkley says that first and foremost, banning RTORs would mitigate the risk of bicyclists being t-boned by drivers. Drivers waiting at an intersection can have a hard time seeing a bicyclist riding on the far right side of the road (or often don't even think to look for bicyclists) and as a result hit them as they pull out and make their right turn. He admits that the available data shows relatively few bicyclist and pedestrian fatalities from RTORs, but it's a real risk nonetheless.

Pedestrians face a similar risk of getting hit by turning drivers, but RTORs pose the additional problem of encouraging drivers to block crosswalks when they inch forward to look for oncoming traffic. I am certainly guilty of creeping into the crosswalk in my car sometimes (gasp! Bike Nerd occasionally drives) as I try to make a RTOR. Blocked crosswalks make it harder for people to walk and further perpetuate the notion that cars have the predominant right to the road.

Perhaps more importantly, Inkley argues that a ban on RTORs would allow Seattle to adopt several European bicycle- and pedestrian-infrastructure innovations such as dedicated signals and bike boxes.

He writes:
First, (an RTOR ban) would allow bicyclists to be given an “advance stop line” [aka "bike box"] allowing them to wait at red lights ahead of motorists where they are more visible without having to watch their back. This is common in Europe (and has been tried in Portland as well).

Second, it would allow engineers to time traffic signals to give pedestrians and cyclists an “advance green,” allowing them to lay claim to the crosswalk and street space (and thereby be more visible) a few seconds before cars started turning right. This is common in pedestrian and cycle-friendly countries like Denmark.

It would even allow cyclists and pedestrians at particularly busy intersections to have their own “protected signal phases,” when they could cross the but cars would be forbidden altogether from turning right. The Netherlands in particular makes use of this technique, in both urban and suburban settings.

Bike boxes and bicycle- and pedestrian-specific signals would be greatly beneficial in Seattle. As bicycle infrastructure continues to progress and the Seattle Department of Transportation experiments with parking-protected bike lanes (like the ones proposed for Dexter Ave and Admiral Way) and cycle tracks, other elements of traffic infrastructure need to be reexamined as well. Cycle tracks and parking-protected bike lanes do make it slightly more difficult for cars to see bicyclists (though not enough to outweigh the other safety benefits they provide). Banning RTORs would help reduce those safety concerns significantly.

Given all the outcry and fear expressed over road diets, I doubt anyone in City Hall has the political capital to push an RTOR ban (losing the RTOR would cause city-wide gridlock, right?). But, it's worth noting, as Inkley does in his post, that RTOR didn't gain wide-spread acceptance in the U.S. until President Gerald Ford, motivated by the 1970s gas crisis, signed new legislation promoting RTORs to reduce the amount of idling at red lights.

The environmental benefits of reducing idling with RTORs (which seem questionable at best), don't hold a candle to the benefits of making bicycling and walking easier and safer, which will, in turn, encourage even more people to bike and walk.  There's real merit to banning RTORs in a city so vocal about reducing it's environmental impact, but so often off the mark in actually accomplishing its carbon-neutrality goals.
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