Right on red

One theory has it that if we just make traffic bad enough, people will take the bus.

Perhaps that was the rationale behind an item on the Town Council consent agenda coming up this week that would have prohibited turning right at red lights in 16 high-traffic intersections.

A former council member proposed the right-turn-on-red ban a few years ago. I recall when it came before the Transportation and Connectivity Advisory Board (I was its council liaison at the time) that the proposed ordinance change was an attempt to prevent cars and pedestrians being in the same space at the same time.

TCAB members, all serious cyclists who no doubt have had their own near misses with cars, wanted to make sure car drivers didn’t feel they had right-of-way over pedestrians. The ordinance couldn’t prevent car-pedestrian interactions; an ordinance is only as effective as the people who follow it.

The ordinance was not even a sort of insurance that drivers who violated it would be punished. Pedestrians always have right-of-way, even when they are not in a marked crosswalk. Even when pedestrians wander, distracted, into the street, the onus is always on the driver to stop. As soon as we get behind the wheel of a car, we accept an additional layer of responsibility.

One wag suggested an alternate resolution: Prohibit cars from running over people.

No doubt we have more distracted pedestrians and drivers than in days before cell phones. We already have some intersections in town that prohibit right-turn-on-red, and cars don’t always abide by it, anymore than pedestrians always wait for the crosswalk signal or cyclists always obey traffic lights. The solution to reducing car-pedestrian interactions is for both the driver and the walker to be more vigilant.

As we have increased density in Chapel Hill, traffic jams have worsened. People choose cars over public transit, walking or cycling for a variety of reasons. Widening roadways is not the answer. But we can make adjustments to improve the flow of traffic, and that includes draining off traffic backups by allowing cars to turn right on red when it is safe to do so. We need to balance the needs of drivers and walkers for a town that works well.

— Nancy Oates

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  1. Terri

     /  September 9, 2019

    About 6 years ago, I was walking back to my office on W. Franklin from downtown when a van turned right from Columbia onto Franklin, broadsiding a young woman on a bicycle (who was going straight through the intersection). I held her hand as she layed splayed in the center of the intersection, unconscious. Other people made sure cars stopped and others worked on her medically until the ambulance arrived. Thankfully, she lived.

    George Cianciolo submitted a petition the next week I think to ban right on red in the downtown area where there are more pedestrians and bicyclists than other places in town. The staff studied the request and then came back and said it was unnecessary.

    How many times does a problem need to be studied before it gets solved? When do we start preventing the risk to human lives over the frustration of drivers who must stop for an additional 2 minutes of their precious time?

  2. Plurimus

     /  September 9, 2019

    I think the problem is larger than simply banning right on red, it may necessitate retiming of lights and cause backups elsewhere, for example driveway exits. Not saying this is bad, but pointing out that traffic flow is a complex problem with unintended and far reaching consequences; not as simple as an edict, no matter how emotional the argument. I also wonder if this problem has a seasonal solution, perhaps banning right on red only when the university is in session, but that also adds additional complexity and may not be workable or require upgrades to smarter traffic signals.

  3. Ray Lovinggood

     /  September 9, 2019

    Ban the “Right on Red.”
    Drivers routinely block the crosswalk, if they stop at all, and then look only to the left. They never look right to see if there are people either about to enter the crosswalk, or have entered the crosswalk. Or, are looking for ways to get over or around the car that is blocking the crosswalk.

    There is no need to “balance” the needs of the drivers. They are wrapped in 1.5 – 2.5 tons of steel. Pedestrians have just skin and bone.

  4. Deborah Fulghieri

     /  September 9, 2019

    Maybe a street-light linked “No Right On Red!” sign next to the traffic light would help. Not only are there many people walking around downtown, but the lanes are a little narrower than standard on these old roads. That narrowness causes pedestrians to walk closer to drivers than in a subdivision.
    I imagine such lights could be remotely controlled, so that right-on-red could be suspended near campus during big games, for example,

  5. Adam Selene

     /  September 10, 2019

    ” Pedestrians always have right-of-way, even when they are not in a marked crosswalk. Even when pedestrians wander, distracted, into the street, the onus is always on the driver to stop.” Really?

    A refresher for all interested persons:


    Specifically GS 20-174 (a – e)

    In driver’s ed we learned to be courteous, look out for kids, livestock, illegal unleashed animals and the enfeebled, but the general idea came down to “crosswalks and kill zones”. At present, jaywalkers are afforded no special rights by law and are subject to whatever happens while in violation. I don’t drive on the sidewalk, I expect able-bodied, sentient pedestrians to stay off the streets except where allowed. As a former cyclist, I was taught to dismount at crossWALKS and walk my bike to the other side of the street before getting back on and resuming my ride. On sideWALKS, I always walked my bike. Common sense and courtesy. Period.