Right on red? If you don't stop, it's wrong on red

THE INTREPID COMMUTER

January 04, 1993

Today's column should prove illuminating.

Now that Intrepid Commuter has dispensed with the obvious pun, we shall proceed on the topic of lights, traffic and head.

Our first inquiry comes from a distinguished reader, Bob Marchinetti of Owings Mills. We refer to him as "distinguished" because the first sentence of his letter is: "I greatly appreciate your column."

The Intrepid One is a sucker for praise.

Anyway, Mr. Marchinetti is frustrated by commuters who abuse what government types call the R-T-O-R-A-S rule. (For you civilians, that's Right Turn on Red after Stop.) Specifically, he is unhappy with people who "barely slow down" through an intersection.

"I honestly believe that most drivers no longer even remember that a right turn on red is only legal after first coming to a complete stop and granting the right of way to all oncoming traffic," Mr. Marchinetti writes.

"The problem is so bad that, when I come to a stop at a red light while using my right turn signal, I fear being rear-ended by the driver behind me."

Mr. Marchinetti, you are not alone. Traffic specialists tell us that the majority of motorists break the law each day by not coming to a complete stop before turning. That has us seeing red.

The present law has been in effect in Maryland since 1976 -- although some form of right turn on red has been allowed since 1937. Maryland was among the last states in the nation to adopt the right-on-red law.

(You may recall that previously you could make the right turn on red only if the intersection was thus marked.)

A study conducted in 1978 found that two-thirds of the 10,000 or so drivers observed at 13 intersections in Montgomery and Prince George's counties did not come to a full stop when making a right turn on red.

Researchers noted even then that "the violation rate . . . has been increasing over time."

But is this phenomenon a safety hazard? The State Highway Administration says probably no, but city traffic officials say probably yes.

"If we have observant, careful drivers, maybe we can let them get away with a few things," says Tom Hicks, the SHA's director of traffic and safety.

Paul L. Burns, assistant chief of the city's traffic division, is on the opposite side of the street. He says that "someone who rolls through a red light is not looking for pedestrians," and he thinks that more should be done to curb the practice.

"A high percentage of [city] intersections now have some restriction," says Mr. Burns. "We're constantly have to evaluate them for safety."

The safety argument is timely, since the latest trend sweeping across the country has been to let drivers make left turns on red in some situations.

According to Mr. Hicks, more than 40 states have laws that allow that practice, but Maryland is not among them.

Before city drivers panic over the prospect of legions of left-turners running red lights, consider this: In many jurisdictions, left turn on red applies only to situations where two one-way streets intersect, and even then it's only when the intersection is specifically marked for it.

Under that circumstance, a driver must look only for cars coming from his right before turning -- a task that is even simpler than making a right turn on red where traffic may be coming from more than one direction.

City officials have opposed the left-turn-on-red law whenever it has come before the Legislature. They plan to fight it again if it pops up during the 90-day session coming up, but officials concede that it may be inevitable.

"It's the growing thing," says Mr. Burns. "The day may come when there's enough support that we'll have to deal with it."

Notice to the dim: Turn on headlights

From traffic lights, we move to headlights and a question about whether they should be required during inclement weather.

Brenda Dash, a systems analyst from Arbutus, commutes each day to work in Mount Washington and frequently spies motorists in dark-colored vehicles traveling in fog or rainstorms without their lights on.

"Whatever happened to the law that was supposed to go into effect that people had to use headlights whenever they turned their windshield wipers on?" Ms. Dash asks. "It seemed like a good idea to me."

It seemed like a good idea to some legislators, too -- just not enough of them to pass a law. As Intrepid Commuter recalls, the most recent version of the bill died in the last session of the General Assembly.

Still, Ms. Dash raises an important point. Too many people are reluctant to turn on their headlights when the outside light is dim.

For the record, motorists are required to turn on their headlights from one-half hour before sunset to one-half hour after sunrise, or when conditions restrict visibility to 1,000 feet or less. We should also note that it is legal to drive with your lights on at any time.

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