Right and wrong on red

Photo: Fredrick Rubensson, via flickr
By Carol Ann Rinzler

As the New Year approaches, take a quiet moment to mark the 39th anniversary of the day on which Americans lost their moral certainty: January 1, 1980, when all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico adopted laws permitting drivers to make right turns on a red light.

Our sense of right and left — sorry — right and wrong, has never been the same.

From the start, in mid-19th century London, virtually all traffic lights used universal railroad signals: Green for “go,” and red for “stop.” Except in New York City. When the first traffic light tower went up at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street in 1916, a police officer standing inside a booth above the road turned a set of 500 watt colored lamps in the familiar red and green, but here red stopped traffic in all directions. Green halted cars and pedestrians going north and south to let the cross-town traffic cross. Amber halted cross-town traffic to let the north-south flow through.

Got that? Many out-of-town drivers and pedestrians didn’t. Swamped with complaints, New Yorkers shrugged their collective shoulders and in 1924 switched signals. After that, green really did mean “go,” and red really did mean “stop.” It was the kind of thing you could count on, like the sun’s rising in the East and setting in the West.

Until the East (Middle) decided to get even with the West (us). In the wake of the Arab oil embargo of 1973-1974, emboldened American conservationists urged right turn on red (RTOR) laws as a way to cut back on engine idling, thus conserving fuel, reducing air pollution and maybe even moving traffic along.

Naturally, California led the way, giving Woody Allen the chance to complain in Annie Hall (1977) that he didn’t want to move to a city where “the only cultural advantage is being able to make a right turn on a red light.” It was a neat quip but a losing battle. Soon the new rules went nationwide. Yes, we did save gas. In Houston, for example, the city fathers estimated that RTOR cut consumption by about a million gallons a year. But there was this pesky blip in pedestrian-bashing by right-turning motorists, and worse yet, our national sense of right and wrong suffered.

The divorce rate zoomed. So did teen pregnancies. As for drug use, how could you just say “no” if you don’t know just what “no” meant? For example, Maine allows you to turn right turn on red — but not if there’s a pedestrian or bicyclist crossing in front of you. Utah doesn’t allow right turn on a steady red arrow. Right turns on red arrows are permitted in Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Oregon, South Carolina, Utah, Washington State and Wyoming, but not in Alaska, California, Colorado, the District Of Columbia, Georgia, Idaho, Maine, Minnesota, or Puerto Rico.

In short, lacking clear stop-and-go directions, America’s moral climate has deteriorated to the tsk-tsk level. Or in the case of some political candidates and issues, lower yet.

Except in the Big Apple. Today, there may be red states and blue states, but we’re still one city that almost unambiguously forbids right turns on red. In New York City, absent a sign giving you specific permission to make this one single particular turn, if the light is red, you better stop. Unless, of course, you are on foot and really, really need to cross the street.