Commuters from Maryland who have been confused by the lack of a right-on-red law in the District can expect some relief from a change scheduled to take place Dec. 17.

As of that date, the District -- like suburban Maryland -- will allow right turns on red. The only catch is that motorists will be allowed to make the turns at only 805, or 17.8 percent, of the 4,519 approaches to city traffic lights.

Most of these approaches will be in outlying areas of the District.Few will be downtown, where many Maryland commuters drive, or in densely populated neighborhoods.

The few intersections where right-on-red will be permitted apparently will make Washington the most restrictive place in the nation for right turns on red.

Spurred by federal energy and highway officials, all states and cities -- except New York City -- now permit such turns at most intersections. Washington has long opposed right-on-red, but bowed to federal pressure and the threatened loss of $340,000 in federal energy conservation funds.

Many motorists already are making illegal right-on-red turns here, and District transportation officials fear that the number of violations will increase after Dec. 17.

"Federal officials are surprised and have been a little caustic because so few will be permitted here, and the American Automobile Association also contacted us," said Steward Cross, deputy assistant director of the District Department of Transportation.

"The District definitely is interpreting the guidelines (for not allowing right-on-red turns) too conservatively," said Don Ryan, chief of the Federal Highway Administration's signs and markings branch. "And we've already asked them to go back and restudy the intersections and put in time restrictions where appropriate."

Local AAA public affairs director, Glenn Lashley, said this week, "We're concerned the District is doing it in so few places. When Maryland and Virginia adopted right-on-red, we felt the city should also try to be uniform . . . and now we feel the city should embrace the spirit of the law."

"It's true we are permitting only a minimal number of right-on-red turns," Cross said, "but we are concerned about the safety of pedestrians." That is especially important, he said, because Washington has heavy traffic, large numbers of tourists unfamiliar with its streets and a high pedestrian death rate.

So far this year, 20 of the city's 42 traffic fatalities -- or 48 percent -- have been pedestrians. Washington, averaging roughly the same rate of pedestrian fatalities over the past four years, ranks fifth in the nation, but more than a dozen cities have rates above 40 percent.

Federal transportation officials insist that right-on-red turns have not resulted in more accidents or deaths in cities where they are now permitted and that the turns speed up traffic flow and save gasoline.

However, there have been no definitive studies on how much gasoline is saved or whether accident rates are affected by the turns. The only study cited by federal officials is one conducted two years ago by the Virginia Highway Research Council. That study estimated the turns would save 3.5 million gallons of gasoline a year in Virginia, which was then beginning right-on-red.

As for accidents caused by the turns, the District's Cross says most accident reporting systems do not single out right-on-red incidents, which are therefore not reflected in city and state statistics.

"That's why the District is now changing its accident forms and tickets . . . . We'll be able to tell what effect it's having," said Cross.

District police plan a special crackdown on intersection violations starting Dec. 17, to help prevent traffic accidents and violations of the right-on-red law, Cross said.

The number of right-on-red turns permitted in Washington may be increased slightly after the system goes into effect, said Cross, but probably will not rise much above 20 percent.

However, "time limitations" for some right-on-red turns will be instituted at many intersections within a year. This would allow the turns before and after school hours at many intersections near schools and at other intersections in non-peak traffic hours.

Washington officials had opposed right-on-red turns here, contending they would be dangerous because the city has vehicle and pedestrian traffic comparable to New York City in the downtown-Mall area. New York City was exempted from the state's right-on-red law, but the city is now considering allowing right-on-red at some intersections, said DOT's Ryan.

After finally agreeing to introduce right-on-red in Washington, District officials initially tried to get approval for a system that permits the turns only at intersections with signs stating "Righton Red Permitted." Federal officials and the organizations like the American Automobile Association urged a uniform law to avoid confusing motorists and preferred the law now used in all states, which allows a turn at any intersection unless a sign states the turns are prohibited.

The District has completed detailed studies of each intersection with traffic lights, and is installing "No Turn on Red" signs at 3,103 approaches.

The cost of the study and installation of the signs is $250,000 and will be met primarily from the city's annual allocation of federal highway money. The direct cost to the city will be about $10,000 to $20,000, according to District officials.