This Wednesday, February 14, the Atlanta City Council will vote on whether to pass legislation to prohibit drivers from turning right on red in three neighborhoods: Downtown, Midtown, and Castleberry Hill.
This legislation, if passed, will save lives. It’s a clear win for making streets safer for people getting around in ways other than cars, and the right response to our city’s unnecessary and growing epidemic of vehicle injuries and fatalities.
Understanding the Risk
Turning right on red poses significant risks to the most vulnerable road users – people getting around by foot, wheelchair, and bicycle. A 2022 study highlighted that when drivers are permitted to turn right on red, they focus primarily on vehicle traffic to their left, often overlooking pedestrians crossing the street to their right. This lapse in attention endangers those already at a disadvantage on the road, particularly in busy urban intersections like those in Atlanta.
Furthermore, recent research found that people walking are more likely to be hit by car drivers at intersections where right-on-red turns are allowed. (From “Crosswalks and pedestrian safety: What you need to know from recent research,” a summary of August 2022 peer-reviewed analysis using pedestrian crossing data to predict crash counts over a decade-long period.)
This sad trend bears out here at home: Recently, the Atlanta Department of Transportation (ATLDOT) found 65 crash reports associated with serious injury and fatal crashes involving right turns at signalized intersections in the city over nine years (2013-2022). More than 40% of these crashes – or 27 – were found to be the result of car drivers turning right at red lights.
Results of right-turn-on-red crashes (2013-2022)
- One fatality – a pedestrian died after being struck by a car driver in Midtown at Piedmont and Ponce De Leon Ave.
- 26 serious injury crashes, all caused by drivers failing to yield
- 18 crashes involving vulnerable road users (16 pedestrians*, one bicyclist, one motorcyclist).
*One crash involved multiple minors and one involved a wheelchair user.
Applying this same 40% ratio to the total number of crashes at signalized intersections yields an estimated 3,463 crashes involving right turns on red over ten years — or about one each day.
This does not take into account unreported crashes, near-misses, failure to yield to pedestrians, or driver violations of crosswalks that happen daily.
What’s more, our research found clear racial disparities in pedestrian fatalities. Black Atlantans are more likely to be struck by car drivers and killed while walking. More than two-thirds of Atlanta’s 2022 pedestrian fatalities occurred in predominantly Black neighborhoods – places with fewer features like sidewalks, crosswalks, and bike lanes that provide pedestrians with basic safety.
ATLDOT also found that GDOT state routes account for two-thirds of all fatal or serious injury crashes caused by drivers turning right on red.
A law that works
Meanwhile, the Institute of Transportation Engineers found that banning right-on-red makes intersections safer and that the policy change created only “minor impacts to traffic operations.” Besides, allowing right-on-red invites motor vehicles into spaces meant for pedestrians precisely when pedestrians are present, making it inherently flawed as street design, as Bill Schultheiss with Toole Design, an urban planning consultancy, has noted.
Prohibiting turns on red is a policy pulled directly from the City's Vision Zero Action Plan and is part of our 2024 agenda.
Areas of concern
Some council members raised concerns about the potential for this ban to increase police interactions and financial burden on low-income families. We support the City's initiative to create an unarmed traffic enforcement unit, and are exploring whether Atlanta could implement income-based fines to address these concerns.
No right on red signs are similar to stop signs – they rely primarily on people complying with the sign for their effectiveness. Other cities have found high rates of compliance. What's more, it only takes one driver stopping to prevent everyone behind them from turning right on red.
Right on red: a relatively new practice
Allowing right-on-red turns in this country is not a longstanding tradition. Instead, it was introduced as a response to the 1970s oil crisis by a government hoping to reduce fuel consumption from idling vehicles. By 1980, the policy was adopted nationwide. While intended to improve energy efficiency, Schultheiss says this theory hasn't panned out. “The savings in emissions and travel times has always been wildly overstated because it never assessed the reality that most of these drivers are immediately stopped at a signal on the cross street or stuck in traffic in urban areas... The total trip of the user was never part of the assessment.”
A call for change
It's time to prioritize the safety of everyone using our city’s roads and sidewalks to get around, not just drivers of motorized vehicles. Removing the right-on-red policy is a step towards real, measurable change when it comes to pedestrian safety, which is at a crisis point. It’s also a chance to live out our declared values as a city that is both pedestrian-friendly and supportive of ways of getting around that are sustainable and safe.
Join the movement
Join us in advocating for a safer Atlanta by supporting the "No Turn on Red" initiative. Tell your council member you support No Turn on Red. Your voice can help reshape our city's traffic policies toward a safer, more inclusive future for all road users.
photo: Pink Badger