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driving concerns

I’m a cyclist and I’ve nearly been hit a few times by drivers turning right on red lights. Drivers are supposed to come to a complete stop and make sure it’s clear, but most drivers come to a rolling stop – if they slow down at all. Would banning right turns on red lights at every intersection make intersections safer for cyclists and pedestrians? It seems like a no-brainer to me. – Shane, Toronto

Banning right turns at every red light could make roads safer – but there isn’t much research proving that, a safety expert said.

“I would say in order to protect as many people as possible, a ban would be the best route to go,” said Valerie Smith, director of road safety programs at Parachute, a Toronto-based non-profit that focuses on injury prevention. “But I can’t say it’s fully supported by data.”

The idea of banning right turns at red lights isn’t new. In fact, they were banned across much of North America until the oil crisis of the 1970s, Smith said.

“In an effort to help drivers conserve gas, they started allowing people to turn right on red lights, except in New York and Montreal,” Smith said. “Montreal kept their pre-existing ban in place.”

While some Canadian cities, including Toronto, ban right turns at some intersections, Montreal is the only city in Canada with a ban at every intersection.

Several American cities are considering blanket bans. So far, Toronto has ruled out a city-wide ban in its Vision Zero plan to reduce traffic deaths and serious injuries.

Most of the research on banning right turns on red is from the early 2000s — and since then, vehicles have increased in size and weight, Smith said.

“I think we’re in a worse situation now,” Smith said. “There are studies that were done that would show [banning right turns on red] certainly reduces the number of conflicts and collisions at intersections … but didn’t speak to whether it is reducing injuries, severe injuries and deaths at intersections.”

A 2023 study of safety measures at certain Toronto intersections found that banning right turns on reds significantly reduced dangerous interactions between vehicles, pedestrians and cyclists.

Part of why there’s not much data on the effectiveness of blanket bans on right turns is because there haven’t been many intersections where it has been implemented.

“The difficulty is that a proper evaluation study would require a city to ban [right turns on red] in a number of intersections in order to make a before-and-after comparison,” said Craig Lyon, director of road safety engineering with the Traffic Injury Research Foundation (TIRF), an Ottawa-based non-profit.

The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials’ highway safety manual estimates that banning right turns on red lights at intersections would reduce collisions, including those with pedestrians or cyclists, in that intersection by about 8 per cent, Lyon said.

Partial solution?

A problem with a blanket ban is that there are intersections where it may not be necessary, Smith said.

“You potentially have intersections where you’ve got little to no pedestrians,” Smith said. “So that’s where you’re going to get pushback from drivers.”

But a piecemeal ban – especially where some intersections may not allow right turns on reds at certain times – can confuse drivers, said Angelo DiCicco, general manager with the Ontario Safety League, a Mississauga-based non-profit focusing on driver education.

“Not only do you have to see the sign and read the sign, but you’ve got to have a calendar and a watch,” DiCicco said. “All of this could be resolved if they just enforce the existing law, which is: You must come to a complete stop at the stop line before making a right turn on a red.”

Drivers may not know about bans at certain lights, or they may just ignore them. In 2022, a 20-year-old cyclist died after he was hit and dragged by a pickup truck turning right on a red light at Yonge Street and St. Clair Avenue – during a 4 to 6 p.m. weekday ban on right turns.

“I would say a good number of our cases are cyclists being hit by right-turning vehicles,” said David Shellnutt, a Toronto lawyer who specializes in cycling-related cases. “I have to believe that a public education campaign, some changes to infrastructure and banning rights on red would prevent a lot of those.”

Any ban would need to be backed by enforcement, whether it’s a red-light camera or police watching the intersection, Parachute’s Smith said.

Smith acknowledges that some drivers are frustrated by turning bans and other safety measures, including bike lanes, intended to protect cyclists and pedestrians.

“Take a step back and think: ‘Does my kid have to cross a busy road to get to school? Does my elderly parent need to cross the road?’” Smith said. “[We should be] protecting people over prioritizing a driver getting somewhere a little bit faster.”

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