Permitting right turns on red lights will save, in round numbers, whatever number of gallons of gasoline proponents of the new law happen to consider an impressive assortment of digits.
Unfortunately, it will also cause some accidents and some near-misses, and it will make life more precarious for that endangered species, pedestrians.
Right-on-red has been legal in many places for a long time, and the rule in these instances has always been that before turning on a red light, the motorist must stop and yield the right-of-way to pedestrians and to other vehicles.
If you had a dime for every time this stop-and-yield rule has been violated, you could buy out General Motors and give it to Children's Hospital as a Christmas present.
In part, this is because drivers are more selfish than human beings. In part, the failure to stop-and-yield is due to ignorance of what the law requires, and for this I must place much of the blame on the media. We don't do a very good job of explaining these things to you.
A newscast, I heard on New Year's Day must have raised my blood pressure by at least 19 points, in round numbers. I didn't have a chance to copy down the words, but the music went something like this:
"If you've been accustomed to stopping for red lights, be advised things will be different now. Amy Hassenpfeffer has details from Richmond."
"A new rule goes into effect today, and as a result you will no longer have to wait and fume and waste gas at red lights. The new law permits motorists to turn on the red, and highway experts here estimate that 300 million billion trillion barrels of gallons, uh, I guess that should be gallons of barrels, of fuel will be saved. Won't it be peachy not to be held up by those nasty red lights any more? This is Amy Hassenpfeffer in Richmond."
If there is mention of the need to stop, or to yield the right of way, it is made casually, and only after there has been implanted in the listener's mind the thought: "Hey, from now on I don't have to worry about red lights any more."
I sincerely hope that Virginia's new law will work out well, and that there will not be an increase in accidents. However, I know for certain that something on this order will happen a thousand times a day:
A motorist on a side street will come charging up to a red light at such a high rate of speed that alert drivers moving on a green light on the main highway will slow down or swerve, thereby creating the danger of chain-reaction accidents. The driver on the side street will, at the last possible moment, slow down to 10 or 15 miles an hour, then dart forward again and emerge into the main highway in a fine burst of speed that will waste whatever gasoline he saved by not waiting for the light to change. There will be nothing in the accident statistics to indicate that anything untoward happened.
A pedestrian waiting for a chance to scurry across that kind of intersection can develop quite an erratic heartbeat before he makes it, but that won't show up in the accident statistics either. I think our enthusiasm for right-on-red is part of our mania for saving meaningless seconds and wasting hours. I consider it of dubious value because there has been no enforcement of the stop-and-yield requirement, there is no reason to expect that there will be enforcement in the future - and without enforcement, right-on-red becomes legalized chaos.