No right-on-red is wrong

Once in a while, an unpleasant experience turns out to be a gift. Such wasNancy Oates an evening rush hour recently when I sat in traffic on Estes Drive, heading west from Franklin Street to turn right on MLK Jr. Boulevard. Traffic had backed up almost to the library, giving me time not only to come up with a blog topic but almost enough time to write it.

Traffic along that stretch may clog even worse if Town Council approves the staff’s idea of doing away with right-turn-on-red at the MLK/Estes Drive intersection.

At last Monday’s meeting, Transportation Planning Manager David Bonk laid out three options for making a portion of Estes Drive safer for cyclists and pedestrians. In community meetings, Alternative 2 emerged the clear favorite — a raised bike path about as wide as a sidewalk, next to but separate from the street, and a double-wide sidewalk separated from the bike path by a strip of grass. Because the bike path would stay raised as it crossed driveways, it would create a de facto speed bump for cars going in and out each driveway.

The plan calls for crosswalks on all sides of the box that forms the intersection of Estes and MLK. Bonk mentioned, almost in passing, that cars on Estes would be prohibited from turning right onto MLK after stopping to make sure the way was clear.

As someone who drives through that intersection regularly and bikes through it frequently, I consider the no-right-on-red proposal a bad one from both perspectives.

Estes has short turn lanes that stack maybe eight to 10 cars. Beyond that capacity, anyone wanting to turn right or left has to line up behind cars going straight across MLK. Hence the daily rush-hour backups almost to the library. Draining some of the cars off to turn right helps. If we got rid of that pressure-release valve, all of those additional cars wanting to turn right would be added to the queue behind those going straight.

Pedestrians and cyclists, aware of their vulnerability when pitted against a car, make sure the driver sees them before venturing across the street. If the town posted a sign prohibiting right-turn-on-red, some walkers or bikers might feel a false sense of security and skip that all-important step of making eye contact with drivers. That spells disaster when a driver, forgetting about the turn ban, looks only left for other cars, then accelerates to turn.

I routinely see cars turning right on red at the Hillsborough Road/Rosemary Street intersection and the South Columbia Street/Cameron Avenue crossing, both of which have no-right-on-red signs prominently displayed.

Town staff and elected officials would do well to follow a philosophy of “First, do no harm.” As council members, we have an obligation to consider public safety and quality of life of town residents. Prohibiting right-turn-on-red at the Estes/MLK intersection fails on both counts.
– Nancy Oates

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  1. Terri

     /  February 29, 2016

    As the person who raised the recommendation to discontinue right on red at major intersections, I will again disagree with you Nancy. I thank George C for presenting the recommendation directly to the last council configuration and to that group for supporting the idea by forwarding it to staff.

    I’m sorry you had to wait in traffic but right on red is dangerous for pedestrians. Impatient drivers roll up to the intersection, disregard pedestrians and are oblivious to signals. I can’t tell you how many walk lights I’ve missed because of such drivers. Or how many times i’e had to jump back to the curb because the upcoming driver is too busy looking left to bother with caution for pedestrians. Bicyclists are equally dangerous for pedestrians.

    Vehicles are privileged in many ways. This one request for pedestrian safety shouldn’t be considered too punitive.

  2. DOM

     /  February 29, 2016

    I agree with Nancy. There is very little pedestrian traffic at that intersection, and effective traffic lights for peds as well as vehicles can mitigate any conflicts. Until the MLK/Estes intersection actually becomes developed and generates more foot traffic, that no-right-on-red makes no sense.

  3. plurimus

     /  February 29, 2016

    I wonder if right turn on red is fundamentally more dangerous than right turn on green? I wonder if there are studies on that?

  4. BikesBelongInCH

     /  February 29, 2016

    Sorry, dressing this up as a pedestrian/bike safety issue seems a contrived rationalization to bolster the prime concern of automobile traffic flow.

    If the no-right-on-red violators are commonplace, then most assuredly the CM has raised this with the town already and CH will soon have new measures (stop light cameras from biggish brother? a bigger sign?) in the name of pedestrian safety!

  5. John Rees

     /  February 29, 2016

    “There is very little pedestrian traffic at that intersection”

    If this logic were applied at every river. There would
    never have been any bridges built across them…

  6. plurimus

     /  February 29, 2016

    Terri, your article seems to reach a different conclusion than NHTSA study you quote which states:

    “In conclusion, there are a relatively small number of deaths and injuries each year caused by right-turn-on-red crashes. These represent a very small percentage of all crashes, deaths, and injuries. Because the number of crashes due to right-turn-on-red is small, the impact on traffic safety, therefore, has also been small. Insufficient data exist to analyze left turn on red.”

    I would think that rather than banning RTOR, enforcement and education is the path forward. Ticket people behind the wheel whose first priority is not driving, and bicyclists that are riding against traffic seems a logical first step.

  7. Terri

     /  February 29, 2016


    As I said in my piece, the impact that does occur is to pedestrians and cyclists. You should also consider that statistics are always generalizations. In communities with a lot of foot/bike traffic, the statistics will be higher. In a community that prides itself on walkability, this shouldn’t be a debate.

    I watched someone get hit at Franklin and Columbia, and I was hit myself in Carrboro. Now I don’t cross unless the driver makes eye contact with me. I shouldn’t need to be so afraid.

    I didn’t ask for a ban at every intersection–I made the request at those intersections where there is significant traffic. I disagree with Nancy that Estes and Franklin is a low impact intersection. Anyone coming from Carrboro/downtown CH who wants to go to the library has to cross that intersection twice. They shouldn’t need to be fearful to do so.

    When was the last time you saw a driver being ticketed for anything in town? When the debate was raging over cellphone usage, the police were very clear–they don’t have the staff to do that kind of enforcement.

    My take away is that the writer and readers of this blog have no interest in pedestrian safety if that safety impedes their motorized vehicles.

  8. Joe Blow

     /  February 29, 2016

    Wow. No right on red from Estes Rd to Airport Rd would make Estes a literal parking lot from Franklin St. to Airport Rd. It’s halfway there now, but this would make it a solid line of cars for hours each day. I have to imagine that the residents of that part of town, and people that have anything to do with the school would simply revolt at such an insane idea.

  9. plurimus

     /  February 29, 2016

    I think that your conclusion about this thread is extreme. “This shouldn’t be a debate” also sounds a bit extreme. What people are trying to do (I think) is have the discussion and perhaps be educated.

    Your “my way or the highway” stance is not supported by any evidence I can find. I am happy to be informed of and consider data to the contrary.

    I think your assertion that Chapel Hill is “community that prides itself on walkability (and bikeability) is a bit suspect because if that were the case there would be continuity in the paths to places such as the library and that sort of transit would have been made more important in the site selection process.

    I do agree that we (myself included) seems to let all of societies ills fall on the law enforcement community. That is wrong and I think it is a major cause of the tension the police face. That said, what makes you think the police would have the resources to enforce the exception of no right turn on red when the general rule is the contrary?

    In any case, for better or worse, we live in a world now where assertions such as yours need to be backed up by data.

  10. BikesBelongInCH

     /  February 29, 2016

    Plurimus is correct. While there are wonderful folk who work hard advocating for it, there is little evidence yet that CH is a bike or pedestrian friendly community. One would expect much the opposite from a community that seems to pride itself on being one of the more liberal and progressive places to live in NC.

    The Estes Dr improvements are a step in getting there though. Pieces are coming together slowly.

  11. plurimus

     /  February 29, 2016

    Bikes, your observation rings true, things are coming together slowly. One change that would be appropriate in my mind is some sort of forward looking plan that links the various trails and paths together in a safe and logical way.

    It will be interesting to see what impact the MLK BRT route has on competing transit interests. RTOR might be safer for some with a “fixed guide way” in the center of MLK, and for others perhaps not. It most certainly will eliminate the center turn lane in a lot of areas.

  12. BikesBelongInCH

     /  February 29, 2016

    Certainly there are forward looking plans in place for Bike and Greenways with the long term goal of providing connectivity. Seems projects are already prioritized and put into action as funds become available.

  13. plurimus

     /  February 29, 2016

    ………and in a related story the first google self driving car caused accident involved RTOR:

  14. plurimus

     /  February 29, 2016

    Bikes, I meant forward looking as in the other things related to transit and development that have an effect on linking the greenways. My examples are BRT on MLK and the need for bikeways from new developments such as Obey Creek and the Edge……

    Its the integration that makes a plan for a truly bike and pedestrian friendly community