An article in the Sacramento Bee today by Tony Bizjak (Back-Seat Driver), Lawmaker challenges California’s $500 fine for right-turn violations, talks about the infraction of not stopping on red before turning right, and whether the fine is appropriate. The article invited people to comment. I’ve written several times about what I think about stop signs, so what I’m writing here is just about traffic signals.

My first reaction is that the people favoring lower fines, or no fines at all, for this infraction are the many of the same people who go ballistic when a bicyclist rolls through a stop sign. This is part of a typical attitude that the things I do on the road are OK, but what other people do endangers me and the social order, and they should be treated harshly. This attitude does not recognize that laws are (theoretically) in place to reduce wrong behavior and not solely for the purpose of punishment.

California Vehicle Code (CVC) 21453 says:

(a) A driver facing a steady circular red signal alone shall stop at a marked limit line, but if none, before entering the crosswalk on the near side of the intersection or, if none, then before entering the intersection, and shall remain stopped until an indication to proceed is shown, except as provided in subdivision (b).
(b) Except when a sign is in place prohibiting a turn, a driver, after stopping as required by subdivision (a), facing a steady circular red signal, may turn right, or turn left from a one-way street onto a one-way street. A driver making that turn shall yield the right-of-way to pedestrians lawfully within an adjacent crosswalk and to any vehicle that has approached or is approaching so closely as to constitute an immediate hazard to the driver, and shall continue to yield the right-of-way to that vehicle until the driver can proceed with reasonable safety.

When a person rolls a right turn on a red light, they are presenting a danger to other motorists, to bicyclists, and in particular to pedestrians. I’ve heard from a large number of people that they don’t like walking because right turning drivers will not yield them their right-of-way, and that the reason they prefer crossing streets mid-block is that there are only two directions of traffic to watch, rather than the large number of directions added by turning drivers who fail to yield.

What is the danger? Well, assuming that the driver truly slows and yields, the danger is low to moderate. If the driver does not slow and yield, as many do not, then the danger is quite high. Most drivers making right turns stop when they can see opposing traffic, which means that they stop past the stop line, and that they stop over the crosswalk (marked or unmarked). This behavior is illegal, but more importantly to me, makes pedestrians feel unsafe and treated unfairly when crossing the street, even when the traffic signal and/or pedestrian signal favors them. The safe and legal behavior is to make two stops. The first is at the stop line, as required by law. At this point the driver should look left, right, and left again to see if there is other traffic or pedestrians. If none are seen, the driver can creep forward (creep means about 2 mph, in my mind) to a second stop where the full intersection can be seen. Again, the driver should look left, right, and left again to see if there is other traffic or pedestrians, and should yield to all others. Only after those requirements have been met is it safe to proceed with the turn (assuming that turning on red is not prohibited by permanent signs or intermittent message signs).

I am speaking here of rather subtle thinking and behavior that many drivers are not capable of.

Since this is the case, some cities and some locations ban right on red. However, I don’t think this is a good solution, since it removes the possibility of letting traffic proceed when it can be done safely (by an observant and skillful driver), and saves it all up for the green, just when the pedestrian is wanting to cross the street and has the right of way. Just realized I haven’t written about that, so for another day.

There is a logical argument to be made that the amount of a fine should be related to the danger the infraction presents to other road users, including pedestrians and bicyclists. Fines currently do not reflect the difference in danger. If this is to start, then all fines need to be looked at, not just this particular one. Pedestrians and bicyclists are the vulnerable users of the roadway, and actions that endanger them should be assigned higher fines.

There is also an argument that fines should be based on income. Currently, fines have a discriminatory effect on lower income drivers. In some areas law enforcement officers are reluctant to enforce traffic law for this very reason, while in other areas traffic law is enforced with just such an objective. Ferguson, Missouri, if one needs evidence, where “jaywalking” is punishable by death. Fines that vary with income would encourage equal enforcement of the law, which is, or should be, the point and practice.

I think a very high fine ($5000 or more) should be assigned to blowing a red light or stop sign. By “blowing” I mean not slowing down and not looking. At least once a day I see a motor vehicle driver blow a red light on right turn, and at a few intersections and times of day, it is almost universal behavior. This is a huge danger, and should be stringently enforced. On the other hand, lower fines should be assigned to actions that present a lower danger, such as rolling stop signs. That means there needs to be a different California Vehicle Code (CVC) entry for the differing infractions.

The focus of enforcement also does not reflect the danger to other road users, but often the ease of noticing and documenting the infraction, and writing the ticket. Many law enforcement officers do not understand the letter of the law, and most do not understand the differing dangers presented by differing violations.

Motor vehicle drivers are in almost continuous violation of the law. Unless congestion is preventing it, they are going over the speed limit. That is a fact. Since speed kills, this is an infraction that should be enforced. But again, perhaps the fines should vary. $50 for 5 mph over, $500 for 10 mph over, $5000 for 15 mph over, $50,000 for 20 mph over? These fines would closely reflect the actual danger presented by the behavior. You might think that $50,000 is completely ridiculous, but think about the cost in lives lost, income potential lost, vehicles totaled, law enforcement and emergency medical response, long term care, funeral expenses, etc.

There are other violations, such as failing to stop when another vehicle is stopped at a crosswalk, the source of many pedestrian fatalities, that are such a danger that they must receive priority enforcement. Other infractions that present a low danger should be enforced with less enthusiasm.

San Francisco’s Vision Zero program includes Focus on the Five (http://visionzerosf.org/vision-zero-in-action/enforcing-traffic-laws/SFPD Traffic Citations Increasing Towards “Focus on the Five” Goals, and many others) identifies and then enforces these high-danger behaviors. They are: running red lights, running stop signs, violating pedestrian right-of-way, turning violations, and speeding. Note that turning violations is on the list. I don’t have any information about whether rolling right on red violations are a significant part of that, but I’d guess left turns are the real issue. The difficulty that a progressive city like San Francisco has had implementing this, with some stations and many officers continuing to enforce based on their perception of what is important, rather than the actual data. The Sacramento region might have a different top five, but it would be similar.

About Dan Allison

Dan Allison is a Safe Routes to School Coordinator in the Sacramento area. Dan dances and backpacks, as much as possible.

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bikeability, legislation, walkability

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