Right on Red: Energy Saving Measure or Unsafe Maneuver

There is a growing interest in removing right turn on red (RTOR) policies in the name of pedestrian and bicycle safety, but there is a serious lack of research on the subject that can help agencies make an informed decision. One of the first books to critically assess right turn on red (RTOR) policies was the 1981 book Livable Streets, written by the PI’s father, Donald Appleyard. This book has since been updated into Livable Streets 2.0, with new content on RTOR policies and practices. According to the RFP and through conversations with this project’s sponsor, David Sforza of the California State Assembly, since 1939, California has permitted vehicles to make a right turn on a red light. When Congress passed the Energy Policy and Conservation Act of 1975, they included a provision requiring states to permit right turns on red lights in order to receive federal assistance for mandated conservation programs. Since 1980, all states have permitted right turns on red as a general rule. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration submitted a report to Congress in 1994 to evaluate the policy on safety. The report looked at data from Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, and Missouri and found approximately 84 fatal crashes from 1982 to 1992 involving a right-turning vehicle where a right turn on red is permitted. The report indicated that 44 percent of the crashes involved a pedestrian and 10 percent involved a bicyclist. In total, right turn on red crashes represented .06 percent of the total number of fatal crashes in those four states, which seemed to say that RTOR crashes are not much of a problem, but the study “seems skewed”. Recently, Washington D.C. has banned making right turns on red, joining New York City, in an effort to protect pedestrians. The City of Berkeley is also considering a similar proposal. Given the recent interest in active modes of travel and recent data showing pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities rising at a faster rate than automobile occupants points to the urgency of this question. Adopting a safe systems approach that addresses conditions that lead to collisions and not just treating the hotspots would be key to addressing the issue. More research on pedestrian and bicyclist injuries at intersections with a focus on the potential danger of right turns on red is needed to help jurisdictions make more informed decisions when considering this change in an effort to reduce traffic fatalities to zero. 

Project Objectives:

  • To help the staff and decision makers of the California State Assembly, and other public agency staff throughout California, make informed decisions about right turn on red (RTOR) policies by researching pedestrian and bicyclist injuries at intersections with a focus on the potential danger of right turns on red is needed as more jurisdictions are considering this change in an effort to reduce traffic fatalities to zero. This research will provide California agency tools to evaluate the intersection in a context-sensitive manner not only based on existing modal splits of travel demand but also based on the state policy goals of achieving higher active travel mode share, which is highly dependent on objective as well as perceived safety of active travel mode users. Specific objectives of this project include:
  • Analyze statewide collision data to identify infrastructure and/or community context(s) that contribute to conditions leading to crashes that result from right-turns on red. 
  • Quantify the emissions-reduction benefits of allowing RTOR and estimate the modal shift that would outweigh those. We expect even a small mode-shift resulting from policies friendly to active travel modes would easily offset any additional emissions created by higher idle/wait times (especially given the coming electrification of CA personal automobile fleet) but the research will help quantify the modal shift that may be required. 
Principal Investigator: 
Bruce Appleyard
PI Contact Information: 


San Diego State University

June 2023 to May 2024
Implementation of Research Outcomes: 

A key approach at the beginning of this project will be to identify various data sources on the  projects, contexts (place types),  and indicators that can be readily available, are relevant to evaluate right turn on red and other intersection safety issues, and can sensibly guide intersection design practice and policies. This work program will do several key things, as follows:

  • Using data from the Traffic Injury Management System and other GIS data (including bicycle and pedestrian count data to control for exposure), we will geo-locate all the right turn on red crashes involving pedestrians and bicyclists in the state of California from the last 10 years, and then compare them with all crashes in the state. 
  • We will identify all the high RTOR crash locations in the state, then use Google Earth and Streetview to conduct a more in-depth intersection-level safety analysis, identifying common problems. We will also look at the urban context for further analysis, considering such things as density, regional centrality, and place types.
  • A detailed review of literature and project report to quantify the relative scales of emissions resulting from restriction (or prohibition of RTOR) and reduction in emissions resulting from the modal shift. The output of this work would be to estimate the modal shift to offset those emissions. 
  • We will summarize our findings through a technical memo/policy brief, which will also include a summary of approaches for solving the problems at specific intersection contexts, building on such work from the project team members, including the PI’s book, Livable Streets 2.0.
  • We will report our findings through our Final Report and through a webinar. This work will ultimately inform discussions around right turn on red policies, whether or not it should be maintained, and in what types of locations and contexts.
Impacts/Benefits of Implementation: 

One of the key strengths helping us benefit Californians is that we have external support from the Staff of the California State Assembly, the sponsor, and one of the key stakeholders in this project. This will help ensure that we speak to the right people at the MPOs, Caltrans, and local governments. The PI's prior experience working with the California State Assembly staff will also ensure that our work will be relevant to the decision processes of the CTC. This partnership will be key to our success. In addition, there are many benefits this project can provide to Californians, including the following:

  • By developing methods to calculate the safety of intersections and RTOR policies, we can help the public agency staff and other key stakeholders make better transportation decisions for all Californians about RTOR policies. This work can serve as a model to help Californians and the rest of the country achieve our street safety goals.
  • By formulating comprehensive policy strategies that, if implemented, could improve road and intersection safety goals, we can further encourage healthy behaviors, transit use, climate action, and the efficient use of transportation investments.
  • A primary goal of this project is to continue pursuing excellence in student scholarship by having this project feed into the graduate papers and theses, following SDSU and Cal Poly’s Teacher–Scholar model.
Project Number: 



Contact Us

SJSU Research Foundation   210 N. 4th Street, 4th Floor, San Jose, CA 95112    Phone: 408-924-7560   Email: mineta-institute@sjsu.edu