Right turn on red history explained

There was an interesting question regarding right turn on red from a previous article that gave readers a chance to ask questions about vehicle and traffic law and traffic in general. The specific question posed by the reader was answered in another previous article, but it might be of interest to give some background on this subject.

Right turn on red is a principle of law permitting vehicles at a red traffic light to turn right after a complete stop when the roadway is clear. This means taking into account not only traffic but also pedestrians and bicyclists as well.

Right turns on red are permitted in many regions of North America. In the United States, western states have allowed it for more than 50 years, and eastern states amended their traffic laws to allow it in the 1970s as a fuel-saving measure in response to motor fuel shortages in 1973. The Energy Policy and Conservation Act of 1975 required that in order for a state to receive federal assistance in developing mandated conservation programs, they must permit right turns on red lights.

RTOR is governed federally. The mandate is that RTOR should be allowed to the maximum extent practicable consistent with safety. Thus, unless there is a safety issue determined by engineering judgment, these turns must be allowed.

All 50 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, and Puerto Rico have allowed right turns on red since 1980, except where prohibited by a sign or where right turns are controlled by dedicated traffic signals. The few exceptions include New York City, where right turns on red are prohibited, unless a sign indicates otherwise. In some states, including New York, a right turn on red is prohibited when a red arrow is displayed.

Through most of Canada, a driver may turn right at a red light after coming to a complete stop unless a sign indicates otherwise — same as in NYS. In the province of Quebec, turning right on a red was illegal until a pilot study carried out in 2003 showed that the right turn on red maneuver did not result in significantly more crashes. Subsequent to the study, the Province of Quebec now allows right turns on red except where prohibited by a sign. However, like in New York City, it remains illegal to turn right on a red anywhere on the Island of Montreal. Motorists are reminded of this rule by large signs posted at the entrance to all bridges connecting with the Island of Montreal.

Although RTOR is legal unless prohibited by signage, it is not a requirement to do so — the driver must be comfortable that a RTOR can be made safely, and if in doubt, it is not required. And, one other thing that I get asked about — can you make a legal RTOR in Malone from the center lane on Finney Blvd. (at Vianor Tire) at US Route 11 (W. Main St.)? The answer is yes, and the reason is because there is no sign prohibiting it. A driver so doing must be extra cautious, as he/she now has to watch out for traffic in both eastbound lanes of Main St. plus pedestrians, but also the potential for southbound traffic on Finney Blvd (traffic coming from Ft. Covington) that might have a green left turn arrow. Since both must legally turn into the left eastbound lane of Route 11, traffic executing a RTOR must yield to traffic from the north that has a green left turn arrow.

In most areas of the US, it is also legal to make some left turns on red. In New York State, left turns on a red light is permissible only from a one-way street onto another one-way street. A good example of this is in Plattsburgh where a driver may turn left from Brinkerhoff St., which is one-way east, onto Oak St., which is one way north.

Right turns on red should be a safe movement IF drivers do so with care. Not only does it save fuel but also reduces congestion at traffic signals by allowing a safe turn where applicable without holding up drivers unnecessarily.


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