Red right arrows
Who taught YOU to drive?
The red arrow blues
By Peter DeMarco
Reader Cynthia Finney (cq) of Brookline wrote to us last week with this plea: “Can you please inform the reading public that a red arrow does not mean that you can turn on red.”
“When one is stopped on Commonwealth Avenue outbound turning right onto the B.U. Bridge, there is a red arrow indicating a stop. Drivers behind me honk and curse because I wait for the green arrow,” she wrote.
“This also happens on the other side of Commonwealth (inbound) where one turns to loop over the Pike to cross the B.U. Bridge into Cambridge as well,” read her letter. “In both cases there are pedestrians to be considered, and in the first case, other traffic that has the right of way. Isn’t a red arrow another way of saying no turn on red?”
Well, that’s what I would have said, Cynthia. Whether I stop at those lights, or another red arrow traffic light, I wait it out. But it’s my job to interview the traffic experts, not necessarily to be one. And so I called Sgt. Larry Fitzgerald, (cq) traffic supervisor for the Brookline Police Department, for the definitive answer.
THE LAW SAYS …
Surprise, Cynthia: we’re both wrong.
“The bottom line answer is that unless there’s a sign prohibiting a turn, it’s just another red light,” Fitzgerald said. “We have one on Brookline Ave. There’s a lot of people who think they have to stay stopped. They don’t proceed because they don’t realize it’s no different from a regular right on red.”
The Registry of Motor Vehicle’s driver’s handbook says as much.
“A steady red arrow means the same as a steady red, circular signal,” the manual says. “The same rules for ‘turning on red’ apply.”
Fitzgerald said red arrows are often found at intersections that see heavy pedestrian traffic, such as those near the B.U. Bridge. Pedestrians still have the right of way at those intersections, but turns are allowed when the roadway is clear.
Red arrows became prevalent in the 1960s and 1970s after state officials gave up on the old “steady red and yellow” traffic light combination, which also required drivers to stop for pedestrians before making a right-hand turn.
“People didn’t stop for red and yellow because they weren’t afraid of pedestrians,” Fitzgerald said.
The red arrow, by contrast, has been so effective that it often results in the other extreme: drivers refuse to turn at all, even when being honked at.
As straight-forward as the red arrow rules are (now that we know them!), two caveats still apply.
You can’t turn right if a sign is posted forbidding you to do so. When I drove through the intersections Cynthia mentioned in her letter, I noticed a “No turn on red” sign where Commonwealth Avenue meets the B.U. Bridge. (To be fair, I can see how she might have missed it, as the sign appears on just one of the two traffic signals at that intersection.)
The other caveat? “The law says drivers may turn. It doesn’t say shall. It says may,” Fitzgerald says. So if you don’t feel it’s prudent to turn right at a red arrow, just wait until you see green.