By next January, motorist in the District of Columbia can expect to start making right turn on red traffic signals at the first of an eventual 200 intersection outside the downtown area.
With federal approval, D.C. Transportation Director Douglas N. Scheider Jr. proposed yesterday the adoption of an official new rule that would permit such turns, but only at intersections where signs are posted saying they are legal.
The rule is the opposite of that in effect in most states, including Maryland and Virginia, where motorists are permitted to turn after stopping at a red signal unless a sign prohibits it.
Although it granted D.C. the right to adopt the more restrictive rule now, the U.S. Department of Energy warned that new federal regulation may be imposed that would require the city to follow the Maryland and Virginia examples.
Nationwide adoption of some kind of right-turn-on-red rule is required under a federal energy conservation law. In approving the 1979 D.C. budget, Congress withheld $440,500 from the Transportation Department to prod it into action.
The city is one of the last places in the nation that prohibits all right turn on red lights.
Schneider said city officials prefer the more restrictive rule because of an unusually large number of diagonal streets, traffic circles and squares and the dense planting of trees along narrow residential streets, which limits visibility.
A survey showed that only about 13 percent of the city's 1,400 signaled intersections - or about 200, all outside downtown - would meet guidelines for the new right-turn rule.
Choosing those 200 intersections is expected to be a time-consuming and controversial process under the rule proposed by Schneider.
Each proposed intersection would be reviewed by the advisory neighborhood commission serving the affected area. There are 37 such commissions, and although their advice is not binding, the city is required by law and court decisions to give "great weight" to their comments.
The formal rule that would permit the turns was published yesterday in the D.C. Register, giving citizens 30 days to comment. Schneider set a deadline of Nov. 15 for adopting the rule, to be followed by a review of potential intersections.
The first signs would be posted in January, with the full process of choosing intersections and erecting signs lasting until next September.