Canadian Road Safety News Digest

Rethinking Right Turn on Red (RTOR)

March 6, 2020   |   Categories: Canadian Road Safety News Digest, News

Novae Res Urbis Toronto, March 6, 2020, Vol. 24, No. 10

City of Toronto Ward 11 (University-Rosedale) Councillor Mike Layton is calling on city staff to investigate how prohibiting right-turns-on-red (RTOR) might help Toronto meet its Vision Zero goal of making streets safer for vulnerable road users.

Layton is expected to introduce the motion at the Infrastructure and Environment Committee meeting on Wednesday. He’s asking the city’s general manager of transportation services, Barbara Gray, to study the efficacy of RTOR prohibitions in reducing auto collisions with pedestrians on city streets when she reports back to committee in late 2020 on the safety implications of speed limit reductions.

“This is about a fundamentally new way of looking at right-turns-on-red,” Layton told NRU. “I think that everyone understands that we have to better protect pedestrians.” He believes the motion will be well supported at council no matter what part of Toronto a councillor represents or how they typically navigate the city. “It’s also just a report request,” Layton added. “I want staff to come back with data that advises us more specifically on whether or not we currently have a position that prioritizes pedestrian safety.”

A 2015 Toronto Public Health report showed that right-turns-on-red lights were responsible for over 1,300 pedestrian injuries and fatalities between 2008 and 2012, representing 13 per cent of all pedestrian road injuries and deaths in collisions with vehicles.

“If we as a city are serious about Vision Zero,” Layton said, the 13 per cent figure is “a number we should do something about.” It behooves the city to take a closer look at the correlation between RTOR and collisions at intersections where they are currently prohibited, he said, to see “if we should be doing it in more places or if we should be looking at it to do universally.”

Right-turns-on-red were not permitted on North American streets until the 1970s when the OPEC oil crisis led all U.S. states to allow them as a means of helping drivers conserve gas. Despite the oil crisis, cities like New York and Montreal kept their pre-existing bans in place at most (but not all) intersections, though they remained noted outliers. Ontario amended its Highway Traffic Act to permit RTOR in 1984.

But the decision to allow RTOR “had nothing to do with road safety and everything to do with convenience and saving gas,” Layton noted. “I would like to see Toronto look at a model that deals with some aspect of road safety when determining how [RTOR policies] should be implemented.”

The dangers Layton highlights in his motion are nothing new. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reported as far back as the 1980s that, in the United States at least, permitting right-turns-on-red increased pedestrian deaths by 60 per cent and increased cyclist deaths via collisions with cars by up to 100 per cent.

Toronto has 165 intersections with RTOR prohibitions in place. While most restrictions are in effect at all times, some are specific to rush hour periods of high vehicular and pedestrian traffic. Currently, about two per cent of all pedestrians and four per cent of all cyclists killed or seriously injured in Toronto have been hit as a result of a vehicle turning right during a red light. “Data and literature review suggest that conflicts between right-turning vehicles during a red signal and pedestrians or cyclists is not a systemic issue across the entire network,” Eric Holmes, communications staff with the City of Toronto, told NRU in a written statement. “However, right turn on red prohibition is an effective tool in the Vision Zero toolbox for locations with particular collision patterns.”

The risks posed by RTOR are especially acute for people with a disability that makes navigating street crossings challenging. Daniella Levy-Pinto, steering committee member of Walk Toronto, is blind, and has been pulled back by her guide dog when right-turning vehicles approached too quickly while she stepped off the curb to cross the street. “This is one of the most terrifying things that happens frequently to me,” she told NRU.

“For a right turn to work, everyone has to be doing everything right,” Levy-Pinto added. “The driver needs to ensure that there’s not a pedestrian or a cyclist, and people crossing need to be aware of what the driver is doing.” But it’s practically impossible for people to behave appropriately all the time in every instance, she said. The problem is with the policy that allows RTOR. “The current right-turn-on-red policy puts the onus of how to use a road on users, rather than on those who designed the road or those who make policies to prevent injury. Right-turns-on-red rely entirely on error-prone human behaviour, so let’s design the policy to remove the possibility of error that leads to people getting hurt.”

Levy-Pinto believes Toronto should explore a more universal rather than piecemeal approach to prohibiting RTOR to provide consistency for those with disabilities, seniors, children, and drivers too. “Limiting or even banning the practice would reduce an important opportunity for conflict at intersections across the city.”

But a blanket approach to RTOR restriction may create new and unintended dangers for vulnerable road users. It would be a big cultural shift to remove RTOR as a driving feature in Toronto entirely, Raheem Dilgir, a road safety expert and board member of the Canadian Association of Road Safety Professionals, told NRU. Compliance with existing RTOR prohibitions in cities where there are restrictions is spotty, with anywhere from 10 to 20 per cent of drivers ignoring the law and turning right on red anyway. “If you get into a situation where there’s a new rule and pedestrians have an even greater expectation that vehicles are going to stop and they don’t,” he said, “that can become a problem.”

Dilgir noted that if vehicles are prevented from turning right during a red light, it will increase the number of drivers turning right during a green light. This could put turning drivers into greater conflict with even more pedestrians than if RTOR was permitted, he said. In this instance, Dilgir cautioned city staff to consider adding advance pedestrian walking intervals to any intersection where RTOR is restricted in future, a move that would allow pedestrians three to seven seconds of advanced walking time before a traffic light switched from red to green.

Pilot projects at high-traffic intersections will be useful to understanding how effective RTOR restrictions could be in reducing pedestrian and cyclist injuries and death, Dilgir noted. “The key thing is to monitor it closely, evaluate it, and enforce it because of the risks of non-compliance and its safety implications,” Dilgir said. “You may not know how well something works until you try it.”

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