Posts Tagged ‘safety’

Left turn on red

Tuesday, 23 February, 2010

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.