ONE OF THE GREAT editorial issues of the year - for reasons that often escape us - is the change in traffic laws around the country to a "right-turn-on-red" policy. This idea, as you surely know by now, is firmly believed to be any one of a number of things: 1) a way to speed the movement of traffic, 2) a means of conserving energy expended by idling engines, 3) a tranquilizer for impatient motorists, 4) a hazard to innocent pedestrians, or 5) much ado about very little.

For our part, we had hoped the matter would settle itself in this region once the District of Columbia joined the 50 states and Puerto Rico in adopting the policy of permitting turns on red lights except where signs specifically prohibit them.

But no, District officials have adopted a regulation that's just the other way around: Starting early next year, the D.C. rule will permit such turns only where signs are posted saying that it is permitted to do so. Regardless of how one feels about the relative merits or dangers of allowing these turns, there should be some uniformity. It's been confusing enough already, with an R-on-R law in effect in Maryland and Virginia but not in the District. Oh, sure, after a while area motorists will get the hang of it and consult their local corner listings for directions; but we can just see the tourist drivers at city intersections, reading their go-ahead signs, looking to the left to see if the coast is clear - and then turning right and plowing into pedestrians.

Since we're apparently stuck with some variation on the federal policy, anyway, the District should just go ahead and forbid right-on-red at any intersections deemed unsafe. If the number of signs proves to be high, so be it; at least the rule would be the same throughout the Greater Washington area and similar to those in most states. If strict enforcement of pedestrian rights-of-way doesn't protect people well enough against reckless right-turners-on-red, the governments of the three jurisdictions should move in concert to rescind the rule.