It’s legal to make a right turn on a red arrow

Q: Is it legal to turn right on a right red arrow after stopping? I often see drivers doing this, but it seems that if it were legal to turn right after stopping, there would just be a red light and not a red arrow.

A: The steady red arrow feels much more personal, doesn’t it? Like it’s there specifically for you.

Actually, it is. But it’s no more restrictive than a steady red light. It’s just more particular.

Let’s think about intersections for a moment. Remember what it was like to navigate an intersection when you first started driving?

Think about what it felt like to be faced with vehicles approaching you from multiple directions while anticipating changing lights, looking for pedestrians, and doing your best not to mess up and get in someone else’s way. If you can’t remember, pay attention next time you’re at an intersection and you see a vehicle with a “student driver, please be patient” sticker on the back window. Those new drivers tend to be much more tentative than the rest of us who have years of practice.

My point is that intersections are tricky. Not to bring things down too much, but about a quarter of all traffic fatalities in Washington are intersection related. In order to keep track of things we reduce events to data, but those fatalities are people from our communities; parents, children and friends.

Given that we spend most of our driving time not at intersections, and we are usually driving at slower speeds in and near intersections compared with other routes, it’s clear that intersections pose an outsized hazard for drivers and other road users.

One way to address intersection safety is improving communication. You might think of traffic signals as physical extensions of the law, and they are, but most traffic laws are primarily about making sure we’re all on the same page while we’re using the road. In that sense, traffic lights are a communication tool that helps drivers understand where they fit in the dance.

A basic four-way intersection with your typical green, yellow and red lights works fine for many intersections, but if you’ve got multiple lanes, with some of them dedicated to singular directions, and you want to move vehicles through as safely and efficiently as possible, it might make sense to give individual lanes their own traffic signals.

When a traffic signal uses an arrow, that arrow is for a particular lane — in the case of your question, the right turn lane. The goal is reduced to reduce confusion. However, the fact that I’m writing an article about it is a good indicator that it’s not totally working.

Other than being for a specific lane, the steady red arrow works just like the steady circular red light. As you’d expect, you’re required to stop at a steady red arrow. Once stopped, the law states that drivers may make a right turn on a red arrow, as long as they yield to other vehicles and pedestrians. Of course, if there’s a sign that reads “No turn on red,” well, don’t turn until the light is green.

One more thing: just because you can make that right turn on a red arrow doesn’t mean you should. A common mistake drivers make when trying to take a right turn on a red light is looking for oncoming traffic from the left, but forgetting to look for pedestrians coming from the right. If there’s a lot going on, it’s best to be patient and wait until you’ve got a green light.

Doug Dahl writes “The Wise Drive” traffic column for this newspaper weekly. He is with the state Traffic Safety Commission.