Under pressure from Congress and federal agencies, the District of Columbia is moving toward permitting motorists to make right turns after stopping at red traffic signals - but the rules to be followed are still in dispute.
Douglas N. Schneider Jr., D.C. transportation director, disclosed yesterday that the city has asked the U.S. Department of Energy for permission to allow turns only at signaled intersections where signs would be erected saying such turns are legal.
This is the opposite of a national standard, supported by the Federal Highway Administration, which calls for allowing right turns at all signals except where signs say they are prohibited.
The District is one of the last jurisdictions in the nation that still bars all right turns at red lights. Such turns are permitted in Maryland, where the basic rule will be changed to meet the federal standard on July 1, and in Virginia, where the federal standard already is followed.
Schneider said the city asked for permission to allow the more restrictive rule to go into effect, at least on paper, by July 1, bringing the city into compliance with a federal energy-conservation law that requires right turns on red by that date.
If the city does not meet that deadline, it could lose about $340,000 a year in federal funds that are earmarked for energy-conservation programs.
The federal energy and highway agencies have been pushing the District to comply with the law, which is intended to save gasoline that otherwise would be wasted while cars idle at intersections.
Sen. Dale Bumpers (D-Ark), originator of the right-turn-on-red requirement, lectured Schneider on the need for compliance at a hearing yesterday by the Senate D.C. Appropriations Subcommittee on the city's 1979 budget. Bumpers threatened to work to get the city's federal energy funds cut off if the city did not show progress.
Schneider said the city wants to adopt the more restrictive rule because, using federal standards, only about 13 percent of the city's signalized intersections - about 180 out of 1,400 - would qualify for right turns.
This is so, Schneider said, because of the complexity of intersections caused by the city's diagonal avenues and numerous traffic circles, as well as its narrow tree-lined residential streets with limited visibility.
If the city were to adopt the more liberal rule supported by federal highway officials, Schneider said, there would be an incredible clutter of about 9,500 signs warning motorists not to make right turns.
J. Carter Brown, chairman of the Fine Arts Commission, the legal guardian of the city's physical appearance, wrote the Energy Department last week saying erection of such signs would be "a serious esthetic problem" and would be unacceptable.
Schneider said such right turns on red would be prohibited, to assure pedestrian safety, in downtown Washington and on such outlying commercial arteries as Wisconsin Avenue NW, H Street NE and Martin Luther King Avenue S.E.
He also told Bumpers that he expects strong resistance to many right-turn-on-red installations from residents and the city's advisory neighborhood commission, which must review all proposals.
Schneider told bumpers, who commutes to the Capitol by automobile from Montgomery County, that many city dwellers "just see this as another way of accommodating the commuter through their neighborhood, at their expense."
Traffic rules are generally adopted on a statewide basis, and for legal purposes the District is considered a state. However, Schneider said, traffic officials in such other big cities as Philadelphia, New York and Boston take a position similar to Washington's, and plan a meeting with federal officials on the subject to seek exemptions from the rules in their states.
By a special act of the state legislature, New York City is exempted from the right-turn-on-red rule.
The District tried once before, in December, to win approval for its version of the right-turn rule, but was turned down. Its request this week seeks reconsideration of that rejection.