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D.C. may end right on red for cars, let cyclists yield at stop signs

Sam O’Brien and Naomi Field, both 24-year-old research technicians at Children’s National Hospital, stop at 11th Street and Columbia Road NW on their commute home to Dupont Circle on July 13. (Alisa Tang/The Washington Post)
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While biking around D.C., Sam O’Brien and Naomi Field check for cross-traffic at stop signs, then often roll through without coming to the stop required by law.

“If there’s nobody around, what’s the harm?” O’Brien said at 11th Street and Columbia Road NW during the couple’s late-afternoon commute home to Dupont Circle from Children’s National Hospital, where they work as research technicians. “Bikers are already rolling through stop signs whenever it’s safe. I see it all the time.”

It’s common practice among cyclists — treating the stop sign as a yield, commonly called the “Idaho Stop” after the state where it became legal in the 1980s — and though few people are ticketed for the practice, advocates say some have been. Soon, however, D.C. cyclists might not have to worry about breaking that law.

The D.C. Council’s transportation committee this month approved legislation that would allow people on bicycles and scooters to treat a stop sign as a yield sign. The bill also would ban right-on-red turns for cars beginning Jan. 1, 2025, except at intersections where the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) determines such right turns would be safer.

The measures are part of the Safer Streets Amendment Act of 2022, which incorporates language from several pieces of legislation aimed at making walking and cycling safer. D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), chairwoman of the council’s Committee on Transportation and the Environment, requested the bill be included on the agenda for a vote when the council reconvenes in September.

“Despite the Vision Zero commitment, our streets remain far too dangerous,” Cheh said in a statement, referring to the traffic-safety program that aims to reduce traffic injuries and deaths. “This bill takes several important steps to reprioritize streets for people over cars and increase traffic safety for all, no matter how you get around the District.”

Treating stop signs as yield signs, according to a council transportation committee report on the bill, would move cyclists through intersections more quickly — making them less exposed, increasing their visibility to drivers and reducing their chances of being hit — and help cyclists maintain momentum.

“Stopping and starting can be hard on the bike in the neighborhood if it’s every block. It’s quite onerous,” said Ralph Buehler, a professor of urban affairs and the planning program chair at Virginia Tech’s School of Public and International Affairs. “The classical neighborhood has four-way stops every intersection.”

Adopting the Idaho Stop also decriminalizes what is a common biking behavior and, the committee report said, “eliminates cause for police stops that disproportionately impact people of color and divert law enforcement resources toward unnecessary activities.” The report adds that decriminalization would encourage ridership, which can lead to more bicyclists and safety in numbers.

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A measure that would have allowed cyclists to treat red lights as a stop sign was removed from the legislation, although the bill does grant DDOT authority to post signs allowing riders to proceed through red lights.

“After meeting with DDOT safety experts and engineers and some members of the public, the committee was swayed that riders treating red light as stop signs may not be appropriate here in the District, given the many complicated intersections that we have,” Cheh said during a July 13 committee meeting.

For vehicles, right turns on a red light — legalized in D.C. in 1979 amid a nationwide push to allow the turns as a fuel-saving measure during a global oil crisis — has created a “hostile environment for people on our streets,” regularly leading to pedestrians “nearly being hit by cars carelessly turning against a red light,” the committee wrote.

It cited a 1981 study showing that after states in the mid-1970s legalized right on red, there was a significant increase in drivers making such turns and striking pedestrians and bicyclists, with the majority of incidents involving drivers looking left for a gap in traffic and hitting a pedestrian or cyclist to the right of the vehicle.

In 2019, D.C. ended right on red at about 100 intersections as part of the Vision Zero program of Mayor Muriel E Bowser (D). Nonetheless, city data shows the number of pedestrian and cyclist fatalities in traffic crashes has remained relatively steady since 2011, with a slight increase in pedestrian deaths in 2021.

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Opponents of eliminating right turns on red lights ask whether the change actually would result in safer streets.

AAA Mid-Atlantic spokeswoman Ragina Ali said that a few years ago, the organization consulted traffic and civil engineers who were concerned “that prohibiting right turns on red would create more gridlock and would do little to improve traffic safety, and in fact could create even more dangerous intersections.”

“Our position ... continues to support comprehensive, ongoing traffic safety education to inform road users of all ages, and all modes of their responsibility in practicing safe traffic behaviors,” Ali said in a statement. “This includes respect and compliance for traffic laws so that all road users may share the road responsibly, predictably and safely.”

Advocates for bicyclists say they hope a right-on-red ban will make the District safer.

District plans to end right turns on red at about 100 intersections in 2019

“It’s going to hopefully lead to less fatalities and crashes,” said Jeremiah Lowery, the advocacy director for the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. “At first, we just banned right on red for a few intersections throughout the city, and I think that’s confusing for drivers. So I think we should just go ahead, just ban them all.”

About the stop-as-yield measure for cyclists, Lowery added: “Hopefully police will spend less time ticketing bicyclists and more time enforcing traffic laws that actually do keep us safe.”

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For Field, 24, the effort to ban right turns on red evoked relief.

“I’ve just almost been hit by so many cars turning right on red because they don’t ever look. If there is a bike lane, if there isn’t a bike lane, they do not look,” Field said, pointing behind her to the corner of Sherman Avenue and Columbia Road in Northwest, where she said she was nearly struck by a car a year ago.

O’Brien, 24, said he doubts the no-right-on-red proposal will be popular among drivers, but as an occasional driver himself, he said he supports the measure.

“Saving a minute and a half, two minutes does nothing for me,” he said. “If it makes people safe, I’m all for it.”