Left turn on red

I was very nearly in a car collision on the weekend. Firstly, remember for context that we drive on the left in Australia.

I was approaching a crossroads intersection intending to go straight ahead, and had a green light. Normally this means nothing should be getting in your way – all of the traffic in the cross street should be stopped at a red and waiting for the lights to change. Except one of the cars on the left side of the cross street wasn’t. It was creeping out into the intersection. As I was about in the middle of the intersection (with my light still green) and about to enter the ongoing street, the car on my left suddenly accelerated and made to turn into the same street I was heading into. Into the same lane I was in (two-lane street, with the leftmost lane was full of parked cars).

This was so shocking I didn’t have time to do anything. I had no time to brake. I couldn’t even reach the horn fast enough to sound a warning blast. Fortunately the driver of the other car must have (finally) spotted me and screeched to a stop, it must have been millimetres from crashing into the passenger side of my car, and my wife.

There’s absolutely no doubt the other car was facing a red light at the time. The only question is why did it attempt to make the left turn? I know that right turn on red is a common permitted action in North America, and the local equivalent would be left turn on red – but left turn on red is illegal in Australia. Except at a few quite rare intersections where it is explicitly allowed by a sign.

The number of intersections where left turn on red is allowed in Sydney is minuscule. I can think of only two intersections that have the relevant signs, in all of the intersections that I regularly or occasionally drive through. (That number is now three, assuming the intersection in question actually had such a sign and the other car’s driver wasn’t doing something completely illegal.) But the thing is, this is not the first time I’ve been in a near collision at one of those intersections, caused by another car attempting to turn left on red and not paying enough attention to the oncoming traffic.

The problem is that Sydney drivers are not used to this rule. It’s illegal at something close to 99% of the intersections in the city. So when it does appear, it’s unfamiliar, and leads to not being fully aware of all the relevant traffic conditions when attempting the manoeuvre. I’m aware of it myself, when I am caught by the red light and permitted to turn left by the sign – I’m trying to watch the oncoming traffic to see if it’s safe to turn, while also keeping an eye on the light in case it actually goes green, and trying to ignore the idiot behind me beeping at me for being too slow. It’s a combination of attention factors that never occurs at any other intersection in the city, and it makes it difficult to judge when you should go. With the inevitable result.

I’ve felt for years that these intersections are accidents waiting to happen. Now that my near misses at those intersections have gone from 2 to 3 in the past decade or so, I’m convinced of it. Perhaps in jurisdictions where turning on red is normal, drivers are more used to it and so better able to avoid problems – although a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report might indicate otherwise. It finds an average of 84 fatal collisions per year at “right turn on red” intersections across the USA.

The report stresses that the data don’t include details of whether the turning car had a red or green light and wants to claim that the “right turn on red” crashes may therefore be as low as zero – but really, when are you more likely to have a crash, turning right on red when there is a good chance of oncoming traffic getting in your way, or turning right on a green, when there should be nothing else in your way? Weirdly, the report then goes on to say that 84 fatalities a year is peanuts compared to the overall road toll anyway, so “the impact on traffic safety is small”.

I hope someone has a nice job telling that to 84 families a year.

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6 Responses to “Left turn on red”

  1. Marcin says:

    Actually there are quite a lot of “left turn on red” intersections in the Inner West of Sydney. I quite often drive from Pyrmont to Enmore TAFE via Stanmore to pick up my wife and MOST of the intersections on the way are Left Turn on Red permitted.

  2. @Marcin: Ah… I almost never drive in that area.

  3. Middlerun says:

    Why not use Google Street View to check whether it’s a left turn on red intersection? The driver might have just been an idiot who makes illegal turns.

    And yeah, I think they are more common in the inner west. There’s one near my house going onto Parramatta Rd. which I find pretty convenient.

  4. Indeed, StreetView does not show a “Left turn on red permitted” sign at that intersection. :-/

  5. Steven Marsh says:

    I note that U.S. traffic deaths are at a near-50-year low: 37,313 deaths reported in 2008; 84 deaths a year would represent 0.21% of those deaths. In any numerical analysis, that does mean “the impact on traffic safety is small.”

    Worse, at least here in the U.S., I suspect that were they to outlaw right-on-red, the number of deaths would increase: impatient drivers would speed through yellow-light turns to “make the light,” which would almost certainly result in more fatalities. (The same phenomenon has happened with the introduction of camera-enforced red-light ticketing systems; drivers have either sped up to make the light or screeched on their brakes to stop and avoid the ticket and gotten hit from behind — fatalities have risen from both sides.)

    It definitely sucks that you were almost hit, and I’m certainly glad you weren’t… but the number of right-on-red fatalities here is not particularly good evidence to support outlawing the maneuver here in the States. We’ve worked out the convenience-versus-deaths ratio much more unfavorably in a jillion other ways already.

  6. I wasn’t trying to suggest it should be outlawed in the US. I was more making a comment on 84 deaths being treated as a statistic rather than a tragedy. Government reports can be a bit cold sometimes.

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