Left on red? Sure, but read fine print

December 31, 1993|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Staff Writer

With little fanfare and a lot of stipulations, a law permitting drivers to turn left on red takes effect this weekend.

Beginning after midnight tonight, while revelers celebrate the beginning of a new year, Maryland will join 42 other states that allow some form of left-on-red.

Maryland's law lets drivers turn left at a red traffic signal -- after stopping -- but applies only to intersections of one-way streets where no left-turn restrictions are posted.

The General Assembly approved left-on-red last spring in an effort to speed traffic, save gas, lessen congestion and reduce pollution.

Finding opportunities to exercise the option may not be easy, however. Baltimore is the subdivision most affected by the law, but fears over pedestrian safety prompted city traffic officials to place restrictions on most intersections.

Of the city's 166 intersecting one-way streets controlled by traffic lights, three-quarters, or 122, will have left-turn limits.

Yet the restrictions won't be immediately apparent. Crews had planned to install most of the necessary signs this week but were sidetracked by the snow.

"Quite frankly, this week we only have a small number of the signs up," said Dave L. Montgomery, head of the city's transportation bureau. Mr. Montgomery said he is not worried about the consequences of the delay. The remaining signs should be up next week, traffic at this time of year is relatively light, and many motorists will not even be aware that they can make the left turn, he said.

"We don't think there will be a lot of people doing it right off," said Frank J. Murphy, a city engineer supervisor. "At least that's been the experience of other states when they adopted left-on-red."

Mr. Montgomery said restrictions were adopted only after intersections were surveyed for such things as sight obstructions, frequency of accidents, volume of pedestrians and proximity to schools.

Left turns on red will be banned outright at 52 intersections, banned between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. at 66, and restricted during school hours at four. Examples of corners where the turns are allowed include Charles and Monument streets and St. Paul and 29th streets. The 122 signs cost the city more than $6,000.

The state legislature delayed the law's effective date until Jan. 1, partly to give jurisdictions time to educate the public. But supporters admit there has been little education. Neither the state nor any of the subdivisions have sponsored public awareness campaigns as they did in 1978 when right-turn-on-red became law.

Outside Baltimore, the state has comparatively few intersections one-way streets controlled by traffic signals. Baltimore County, for instance, has none.

There are approximately 30 under the State Highway Administration's jurisdiction, all in municipalities such as Annapolis, Laurel, Hagerstown and Ocean City, said Tom Hicks, the SHA's director of traffic and safety.

Mr. Hicks said passage of the new law was important to make Maryland laws consistent with those in surrounding states.

While studies have shown that motorists often fail to come to a complete stop before making a right turn on red, that hasn't been a factor in many accidents, Mr. Hicks said.

Left-turn-on-red should be just as accident-free, particularly since motorists have fewer things to look out for at one-way intersections, he said.

"I'm not worried about it, particularly with the experience of other states where it hasn't been a problem," Mr. Hicks said. "It's a common-sense thing that this only applies to one-way streets. Turning into a two-way street won't make any sense to drivers."

City officials opposed the law, chiefly because of the potential danger posed to pedestrians. At most of the downtown intersections, left-on-red will be banned from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. to minimize such conflicts.

Sgt. Thomas Joyce of the Baltimore Police Department's traffic enforcement unit said no special effort will be made to enforce the law. Violators may receive a citation worth one point on a driver's license and a $50 fine.

"We will probably give some leeway to people the first week or two," Sergeant Joyce said. "But if we start seeing more than one or two violations a day, maybe we'll have a problem."

Like the right-on-red law, the new law doesn't require drivers to turn left on red.

A violation would take place if they failed to stop, or turned left at an intersection where such a turn is banned, Sergeant Joyce said.

4 City traffic officials predict minimal benefits.

The chief improvement is that a left-on-red in the city could allow a motorist to catch the green-light progression on the other street.

"There's a lot of frustration for motorists waiting at a light when nothing's coming the other way," said William F. Zorzi Sr., spokesman for the Maryland chapter of AAA-Mid-Atlantic, which has long supported the concept. "I have to believe this is going to help."

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