Where can you turn right on red?

The question of whether a driver can execute a right turn on red (RTOR) from an intersection where the cross street (or streets) don’t line up comes up from time to time.

Three intersections that I can think of in Franklin County that have a three-color traffic signal controlling such intersections include West Main Street and Academy Street, and East Main Street and Catherine Street in Malone, and Bloomingdale Avenue and Church Street in Saranac Lake. There may be others that I have missed.

The confusion surfaces when an eastbound (EB) driver on West Main wants to turn right onto Academy Street or to turn right from East Main onto Catherine. In Saranac Lake, the dilemma may occur when an EB driver on Bloomingdale Avenue wants to turn right onto Church Street. In each of the three examples, the desired street the driver wants to turn onto is slightly beyond the middle of the intersection. So to execute the turn, the driver must go past the left leg of the intersection to reach the right leg, and many drivers are unsure if they can do this legally if the light they are facing is red.

The answer in all three cases is yes, it is permissible. The intended street each driver intends to turn onto is part of the intersection, AND there is no sign prohibiting the RTOR. Remember, in all cases of RTOR, you must come to a complete stop first, and if it is safe to make the right turn, taking into account other traffic and pedestrians, you may do so.

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.

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.

Throughout 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 New York state. 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 for inbound drivers at all bridges connecting to the Island of Montreal.

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


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