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Transportation officials ponder whether prohibiting right turns on red will save lives

Friday, November 4, 2022 by Andrea Guzman

Crashes in Austin this year are seeing grim trends like motorcyclist fatalities that have exceeded last year’s and overall fatalities nearing 2021’s totals.

However, the Vision Zero program, a framework that aims to end traffic-related deaths and serious injuries, pointed to some successes and shared ideas that other cities have taken up to improve roadways that may work in Austin. For one, prohibiting right turns on red. 

Right turns on red became commonplace in the U.S. after a provision in the 1975 Energy Policy and Conservation Act required states to enact the practice in order to receive federal assistance for mandated conservation programs. The driving force was the oil crisis and logic that drivers would spend less time waiting for a green light, thereby lowering emissions. 

But the savings in emissions has been called into question. Meanwhile, signs barring right turns on red lights have lowered the failure to yield to pedestrians in Washington, D.C., and Florida by 92 percent and at least 59 percent, respectively. In D.C., the law is enforced with the help of red-light cameras, which are currently prohibited in Texas. 

Lewis Leff with the Austin Transportation Department noted that 2017-2021 saw 43 right-turn crashes at signalized intersections, making up nearly 3 percent of injury and fatal crashes in that time frame. At an Urban Transportation Commission meeting Tuesday, he stressed that these are early findings and that the idea can be revisited after more discussion with the department’s engineers. 

“There’s obviously a question about where it makes sense to do it,” Leff said. “Is it at hot-spot locations? At high pedestrian activity locations? There’s a lot of different factors that you could consider about where this might make the most sense.” 

Looking ahead at projects that could be delivered within five years, Leff said the department has applied for $28 million in federal funding, about 20 percent of which would be local match. 

The focus of those projects will involve strategies to reduce fatalities and serious injuries with proven countermeasures. The projects would also have an emphasis on equity by introducing initiatives in historically underinvested areas. 

That includes projects like roundabouts, the Safe Routes to School program, and major intersection safety projects. 

Intersection safety projects in particular show some movement on Vision Zero’s goals: 13 study intersections had a 30 percent reduction in crashes in the year after such projects were completed.  

The department is expected to hear back in December or January on whether the funds have been granted.

Leff reflected on Vision Zero’s aims, pointing to the years of life lost when people die prematurely in traffic collisions. In Austin, that number is estimated at 2,862 years through late October this year. 

Lowering these types of fatalities is “going to take some transformative change.” 

“We’re not perfect on the roadways, we’re not perfect in other areas of life,” Leff said. “So how do we design and operate a system that acknowledges these two critical factors?”

 

The Austin Monitor’s work is made possible by donations from the community. Though our reporting covers donors from time to time, we are careful to keep business and editorial efforts separate while maintaining transparency. A complete list of donors is available here, and our code of ethics is explained here. This story has been changed since publication to include the fact that red-light cameras may impact failure-to-yield rates in D.C..

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