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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Right turns at red lights could soon be banned for drivers at certain locations in Washington

By Elena Perry The Spokesman-Review

OLYMPIA – Washington would be the first state to significantly roll back the right of drivers to turn right on red lights under legislation proposed in the state Senate.

A state Senate committee on Tuesday heard public testimony about a bill that would prohibit drivers from turning right at red lights within 1,000 feet of specific facilities, such as elementary and secondary schools, libraries, hospitals and public transit centers.

Traffic fatalities in Washington are at a three-decade high. In 2022, 745 people died in crashes. Lawmakers this year are considering a slew of traffic-safety legislation to bring this number down to “target-zero.” The right-on-red bill was considered to reduce collisions and close calls between cars and pedestrians or cyclists.

“I love taking a free right on a red as much as the next guy, but if it’s putting people in danger, I need to balance my leisure with public safety,” said Sen. Marko Liias, D-Everett, chair of the Senate Transportation Committee.

Washington law permits turning right at a red light if the driver first makes a complete stop and the road is clear of oncoming traffic, including cyclists or pedestrians in the adjacent crosswalk.

Often, drivers are more focused on traffic coming from the left than pedestrians or cyclists occupying the crosswalk to their right, testimony said.

“People are focusing on the left, left, left, and when they see an opening (in traffic), they’re gone,” said Sen. John Lovick, D-Mill Creek, the primary sponsor of this bill.

Despite pedestrians maintaining the right-of-way, public testimony included several anecdotes about pedestrians and cyclists being hit or nearly hit by motorists attempting to turn right at red lights.

Stefanie Randolph was hit on her bicycle by a car turning right at a red light as the driver was “rushing” home from work.

“I was pushed across two lanes. It’s only through luck and skill that I didn’t fall down and actually stayed upright,” Randolph said. “That doesn’t mean I didn’t have injury from that experience that still stays with me.”

For many Washington drivers, a legal right on red is all they’ve known. Lovick acknowledged people may be reluctant to see this difference.

“People hate change and they hate the way things are,” Lovick said. “(This is) a change that people are going to hate, but they also hate the fact that people are cutting them off and running them down at intersections.”

If this legislation passes, Washington would be the first state to ban rights on red to any extent, though the District of Columbia prohibited the practice in 2019.

The legal right at a red light was introduced in the United States for the first time in 1939 in California, then legalized federally in the 1970s as an oil-saving measure.

The bill would go into effect on July 1, 2024. For two years following the implementation of the law, the Washington Traffic Safety Commission would design a public awareness campaign to ensure drivers are well aware of the change. Additionally, the Washington State Department of Transportation and local jurisdictions would be responsible for displaying signage at each affected intersection.

The bill has not yet been scheduled for a vote. A companion bill in the House is scheduled for a public hearing on Thursday.