Left on red a surprise winner


April 12, 1993

In the spirit of the media elite, Intrepid Commuter devotes this week's column to leftist matters.

We speak not of left-wing political causes such as taxing the rich, saving the whales, or nationalized health care. You can read about that stuff in the editorial pages, provided you've taken the appropriate mind-numbing medication.

Nor are we referring to left-handed compliments as in, "Intrepid Commuter, you are the best commuter columnist appearing Mondays in any of Baltimore's newspapers with a daily circulation in the six figures!"

Rather, we are talking left turns.

Beginning Jan. 1, Maryland motorists will likely be able to make a left turn on red after stopping at an intersection of two one-way streets.

Legislation to make possible that specific type of left turn on red has been approved by both the House and Senate and awaits only the signature of Gov. William Donald Schaefer to become law.

The governor supports the concept and is expected to sign the bill into law in a few weeks, says spokeswoman Page W. Boinest.

"It saves gas and keeps the traffic moving," Ms. Boinest says. "It also makes Maryland's traffic laws uniform with the surrounding states."

It's one of the surprise winners in this year's General Assembly session. Previous attempts at left-turn-on-red laws have failed, primarily because of opposition in the House Judiciary Committee and from the City of Baltimore.

But changes in the committee's makeup, including a new chairman who favors the idea, and a recognition that a sizable number of states (42 at last count) have legalized some form of left-on-red seemed to make the difference, supporters say.

"It's a common-sense bill," says Del. Peter G. Callas, a Washington County Democrat and the measure's sponsor. "It speeds up traffic flow; it helps cut down on pollution; it cuts down on consumption of gasoline; and I think it makes for happier motorists."

Not quite so happy about the move are Baltimore officials. They fear that left turns on red could jeopardize pedestrian safety, and the increased risk might raise automobile insurance premiums.

The way the law would work, a left turn on red after a stop will be permitted from one one-way street to another one-way street unless the intersection is marked otherwise. But remember: It wouldn't go into effect until Jan. 1.

Banning left turns could be costly for city taxpayers. The price tag for installing "No Turns on Red" signs at the hundreds of spots where city officials want to ban them is about $200 per intersection.

Still, there seem to be places where left-turn on red would be ideal: U.S. 1 in Laurel or U.S. 40 through Hagerstown, for example. Both highways have busy stretches of one-way traffic intersected by numerous one-way streets.

Tom Hicks, director of traffic and safety for the State Highway Administration, agrees that the proposal will help keep cars moving. He also agrees with Mr. Callas that the law is unlikely to cause accidents.

Consider, he says, the fact that left turners on one-way streets actually have fewer potential obstacles than right turners who must look out for oncoming cars from several directions.

"Allowing left turn on red between one-way streets will improve traffic flow with a minimum impact on safety in our judgment," Mr. Hicks says. "About 80 percent of states allow left-turn-on-red without problem, but with some benefit to the motoring public."

Some lefts are still not right

On the subject of left turns, we turn our attention and give a hand to Thomas M. "Lefty" Murphy of Rodgers Forge.

Mr. Murphy recently sent us an admirable letter that outlined one of Intrepid Commuter's favorite complaints.

(Incidentally, he also also used the word, "plethora," in his missive, which is pretty darn good vocabulary for a fan of this column.)

Our loyal reader's frustration is with people who "pay absolutely no attention" to the rush-hour restrictions on left turns along some of the major avenues in the city.

He refers, of course, to the signs posted at intersections that typically tell motorists that left turns are banned between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. and from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.

Two examples he lists are Greenmount and North avenues and Charles Street and Cold Spring Lane. Traffic at the latter, he points out, "backs up substantially during a normal traffic light cycle, let alone if some idiot decides he must make a turn.

"Since the city is constantly searching for revenue enhancements, I would recommend that the city police strategically plant themselves at these 'restricted intersections' during peak hours and give moving violation tickets.

"How difficult is it for a driver to plan his route before getting behind the wheel? This would not only generate well-needed revenue for the city, but it will go far in easing tempers among the weary and tired commuters."

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