It was actually introduced to save fuel, but there have been unintended consequences.
Right turns on red lights are legal in much of North America (they are banned in Montreal and New York City) except where you see this much-ignored sign. Having been nearly clipped a few times by cars turning right, I have never understood why they are allowed. Really, the driver has to look straight and right to see if there are pedestrians coming and left to see if cars are coming and you can't safely do both at the same time.
Now Eben Weiss, AKA the Bike Snob, takes up the case against right turns on red in his Outside Magazine soapbox, after an egregious case in Washington where a policeman turned right into a cyclist and then charged the cyclist. He thinks red lights should be clear for everyone, and that because they are so binary, they are "our only meaningful defense against drivers, because they’re the only traffic control device that tells them exactly when to stop and go with no ambiguity, and it’s the only one they take semi-seriously." I would put emphasis on the semi.Weiss is writing about bikes, but he clearly knows how to drive a car, because he describes perfectly the challenge of making right turn on red.
...they poke their bumpers out into the intersection like gophers checking to see if the coast is clear, and as long as there’s not another driver coming along to tear their bumpers off, they figure it’s safe to proceed. In fact, the very act of making a right on red requires them to violate cyclist and pedestrian right of way, because they’ve got to be well past the crosswalk and into the intersection before they can even get a view of oncoming traffic.
Weiss makes a strong case about how bad right turns on reds are for cyclists, but where I live in Toronto, The Centre for Active Transportation (TCAT) makes the case for pedestrians.
The right-hand turn scenario is particularly difficult because the pedestrian has a green light telling them it’s ok to cross. A child might not understand the complexity of needing to double check anyways, a senior with reduced sight, hearing and movement might not notice the turning vehicle, and a blind person relying on the audible pedestrian signal has no way of knowing a vehicle is about to cross their path. Since 2006, there have been 41 fatalities of pedestrians involving drivers turning right. Nearly a third of victims were 60 years old or older.
Daniella Levy-Pinto of Walk Toronto, who is legally blind, says, “I’ve lost count of the number of times drivers have sped to make their right turn as I start to cross, of course with the light. My dog has pulled me back.”
Right turns on red became common after the oil crisis as a way of reducing idle time for cars, and in fact American legislation tied federal funds to states to a requirement for it. But according to TCAT,
Following the change, a number of studies looked at the safety consequences. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found in the 1980s that collisions with people walking increased by 60% and with people cycling by 100%. Another study of four states in 1982 found increases in collisions involving right-turning vehicles and pedestrians ranging from 40% to 107%. Observations of drivers also revealed that over half failed to come to a complete stop before proceeding through the intersection.
Right turns on red are bad for people on bikes, and bad for people on cars. They don't happen in most of Europe or for countries that drive on the left, and the equivalent is banned in New Zealand, the UK, Australia, Ireland and Singapore.
It's only in America that they decide to save fuel for people who drive by reducing safety for people who walk or bike. As TCAT concludes:
Restricting these turn movements is a simple way to reduce conflicts between people walking and people driving. As a regulation, it’s in keeping with the goals of Vision Zero, by putting the onus of responsibility for safety where it belongs – on those who design the system.
Of course, now right turns on red are not about saving fuel; they are about the convenience of drivers and Rule One is that Nothing Shall Slow Down Drivers. But in coming years there will be more people on bikes and e-bikes, and a lot more older people walking, and more deaths and injuries. It really is time to stop right turns on reds everywhere.
UPDATE: Of course, Angie Schmitt of Streetsblog covered this last year in It’s Time for Cities to Rethink Right Turns on Red.