Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell is pushing for a state law to ban right-hand turns at red lights in an effort to increase pedestrian safety and slow down traffic.

Two bills before the Legislature would amend the state traffic code, but only for Oahu. Neither has been scheduled for a hearing so far.

“We’re trying to increase safety on the roadway, and that has become a priority over traffic flow,” said Jon Nouchi, Honolulu’s deputy director of transportation services.

Nouchi said the mayor’s administration has been pushing for safer conditions for pedestrians and cyclists.

No Right Turn on Red sign at Date Kapiolani Blvd intersection.
The restriction cited on this sign at Date Street and Kapiolani Boulevard would become islandwide law if Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell has his way. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Without amending the state traffic code, the only way Honolulu could prohibit right turns at red lights would be to put a sign at every intersection, according to the county laws.

Nouchi acknowledges that the proposal may not be popular with drivers.

“When people look at it, they’ll focus on the fact that they won’t be able to make a right turn on red,” he said. “But what other safety opportunities could this bring?”

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Last year, 27 people died in pedestrian fatalities on Oahu. It’s not clear if any of those were caused by drivers making right-hand turns.

The effort is part of Caldwell’s Complete Streets initiative that seeks to make streets safer and more accessible for all modes of transportation.

The two measures, House Bill 185 and Senate Bill 167, have been referred to their respective chamber’s transportation committee.

Rep. Henry Aquino, chair of the House Transportation Committee, wasn’t available for comment. Sen. Lorraine Inouye, chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, said she’s still deciding whether or not to give the bill a hearing.

Inouye said it doesn’t seem necessary to change state law since counties already have authority over their roadways.

“If they want to, they can ban those right turns,” she said. “I’m pleased, though, that the city recognizes that something has to be done for fatalities and accidents on their streets.”

Ala Moana Boulevard, Diamond Head bound lanes at the Piikoi intersection.
It’s not clear, locally or nationally, how much of an impact right-hand turns at red lights have on traffic accidents. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2018

The state Department of Transportation did not respond to a request for data on pedestrians hit by cars making right-hand turns at red lights. National data is also sparse.

Mainland proponents of banning right turns at red lights often cite a 1984 study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety that said crashes at intersections increased when legalization of right turns at red lights became more common in the 1970s.

Crashes related to right turns at red lights increased 23 percent, pedestrian accidents increased 60 percent, and bicycle crashes increased 100 percent, the study found.

More recent research challenges that study.

In an analysis of traffic data from four Midwest states, drivers making right turns on red accounted for only 0.06 percent of fatal crashes, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported to Congress in 1995.

A 2002 study in San Francisco found that, of 100 pedestrian collisions selected at random, none was caused by drivers turning right on red. However, researchers did find that 12 collisions in that sample were caused by drivers turning right on green lights.

“It is intuitive that accidents involving right turn on green are relatively more severe than right turn on red, as vehicles in the former case are moving nearly at full speed,” the study said.

Washington, D.C., already has plans to outlaw right turns against red lights at 100 intersections across the district’s eight wards. The intersections were picked based on crash history and pedestrian activity, according to the district’s Department of Transportation.

Allowing right turns became more common nationally in the late-1970s after the 1975 Energy Policy and Conservation Act made it a requirement in each state’s energy conservation plan.

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