NO RIGHT ON RED: When traffic signals and signs conflict, what’s a driver to do? Traffic engineer Paul Basha supplies the answer.

By Paul Basha | Summit Land Management

In Scottsdale, on northbound 68th Street, at Indian School Road, a driver is confronted with four red signals, a prominent sign stating, “NO TURN ON RED,” a right turn only lane, and a little green right turn arrow. Is driving intended to be a multiple choice test? I’d rather not explain to a pleasant police officer that I followed the little green arrow and ignored four red signals and a very obvious NO TURN sign.

How do self-driving cars decide?

Not-to-worry. Every state, county, and city in the nation; plus the Federal Highway Administration, have laws that clearly state the rules for driving. There is the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices that dictates everything from the shape of stop signs, to red means stop, and to the yellow light needs to be between the red light and the green light. It also tells traffic engineers how to decide if stop signs or traffic signals are needed at specific intersections or how to determine speed limits.

This 800+ page book tells everybody everything about traffic.

Section 2B.54 in the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices lists the six reasons for installing NO TURN ON RED signs. “A No Turn on Red sign should be considered when an engineering study finds that one or more of the following conditions exist:” The sixth reason listed applies to northbound 68th Street at Indian School Road, and states, “The skew angle of the intersecting roadways creates difficulty for drivers to see traffic approaching from their left.” Yep, that’s it here. A driver in the northbound 68th Street right-turn-only lane wanting to turn right to drive east on Indian School Road cannot see oncoming eastbound traffic on Indian School Road, west of 68th Street. Those red and gold arrows show the driver’s sight line, and they extend into the roadside. In a normal intersection, the lines would stay in the roadway, or at least the right-of-way.

Traffic engineers have discovered that a typical driver needs 6.5 seconds to look, decide to turn right, move their foot from the brake pedal to the gas pedal, turn right, and accelerate. While younger drivers and sports cars need less time; older people and SUV’s need more time. (And it appears that there are more older people than younger people in Scottsdale, and more SUV’s than sports cars in Scottsdale.)

In those 6.5 seconds, a car traveling at the posted speed limit of 40 miles-per-hour would travel 381 feet (the gold line). At 50 miles-per-hour, the distance is 477 feet (the red line). If the oncoming vehicle is traveling faster, the distance is longer. A driver looking along either the gold line or the red line, could not see oncoming traffic to know if it was safe to turn right. An approaching vehicle might be unseen for some reason, and arrive at the intersection just-in-time to crash into a northbound-to eastbound right-turning car.

In an imaginary, perfect, and non-existent world – where everyone drove the speed limit – we would need fewer NO TURN ON RED signs (as well as fewer tow trucks).

So, we expect our City Traffic Engineers to make the roads safe. And, that’s the reason for the NO TURN ON RED sign.

Allowing right-turns on red lights started in Oregon in 1971, and gradually, then rapidly, became nationwide in the early 1980’s. The law says that you must come to a complete stop and look carefully. You must ensure there are no oncoming cars from the left – including people driving cars illegally changing lanes near the intersection. You must also confirm there are no pedestrians, wheelchair users, or bicyclists in the crosswalk you must cross. Friends tell me that, on rare occasions, they have actually witnessed cars stop on the red light prior to turning right. These friends also tell they have seen a Sasquatch.

Yes, right turns on a red light are our friends. They save us time, fuel, and money. They reduce congestion. This practice is simply smart.

Nonetheless, some cities are beginning to prohibit right turns on a red light, either at specific intersections or jurisdiction-wide. No, it is not part of a campaign to be certain we do not do smart things.

The dominant reason for prohibiting right turns on a red light is that people are not being careful. Admit it, we’re all narcissists, to some degree. Our time and life are so much more important than other people’s time and life. Many of us are not careful when we drive. Often, we are concentrating on where we need to be, or what else we need to do, or a phone call; instead of focusing on driving safely. We need to be aware that other people share the earth with us.

In the United States, on average, more than 20 pedestrians are killed by vehicles every day.

We treat the right turn on red light as though it were a yield sign. Yield signs are installed where there are few vehicles. By definition, traffic signals are installed where there are numerous vehicles – and traveling in different directions. The red light is there for a reason – other fast moving cars might be entering the intersection that we want to enter. We need to stop on red lights and look.

What do we tell our young children about using social media and cellphones? “You behave rationally or I’ll take that luxury away from you!”

The green right turn arrow when a NO TURN ON RED sign is present, is a very knowledgeable compromise. Drivers are clearly advised that, for one or more of many possible reasons, it is unsafe to turn right on a red signal. However, when other traffic signals stop conflicting vehicles from your left, drivers are notified by the green right turn arrow that it is safe to turn right – and only then.

So, if someone obeys the green arrow and disobeys the NO TURN ON RED signs, have they behaved illegally or committed a crime? If not, are there laws or rules anywhere that tell us that we can turn right on a green arrow and ignore the NO TURN ON RED signs? Are there state statutes or a Federal Highway Administration decree or something?

Well, there might be something somewhere. But I cannot find that something anywhere. My research has yet to find a state law or a Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices paragraph or a Federal Highway Administration ruling that specifically allows a motorist to turn right on a green right turn arrow when NO TURN ON RED signs are present.

The best that I can offer is that some well-intentioned and helpful traffic engineer arranged the traffic signals so that drivers could safely and confidently turn right at certain times. Then this traffic engineer installed a green right turn arrow to tell you those times when you can turn right in defiance of the NO TURN ON RED sign.

Bottomline, if you could not turn right on the green arrow, then the green arrow would serve no purpose, and would never have been installed. So, it is logical to assume that the green right turn arrow is there to tell you that you can turn right – and ignore the NO TURN ON RED sign.

Please tell me if the police officer believes you.

Curious about something traffic? Call or e-mail Paul at (480) 505-3931 and

Share this!

Additional Articles

News Categories

Get Our Twice Weekly Newsletter!

* indicates required

Rose Law Group pc values “outrageous client service.” We pride ourselves on hyper-responsiveness to our clients’ needs and an extraordinary record of success in achieving our clients’ goals. We know we get results and our list of outstanding clients speaks to the quality of our work.

June 2024