This week on Carolina Curious, longtime Winston-Salem resident Martha Apple has a question that’s fairly pedestrian. She and her husband recently moved downtown. They enjoy exploring the city by foot, but sometimes things get a bit dicey.   

“I would like to know the origin of the turning right on red rule, and why we allow it where there is a high level of pedestrian traffic,” asks Apple.

For Deputy Director of Transportation for the city, Jeff Fansler, the answer is straightforward.

“Right turn on red is a metric really of efficiency,” he says. “What we’re trying to do is allow movement that is based on limiting vehicular delay.”

And he says limiting vehicular delay is a big deal in this city with lots of small, closed blocks downtown, that could otherwise be a recipe for gridlock. But Fansler is sympathetic to the pedestrian’s plight. He says making this system work depends on responsible pedestrians and drivers.

“The turning vehicle has to come to a complete stop,” says Fansler. “And they have to of course make sure they yield the right of way to any other one — vehicle or pedestrian — that has the current right of way. So, if all those metrics are met and there’s no conflict after they come to a full stop, they can turn right on red by general statute.”

And Fansler’s quick to emphasize that drivers have the option to make a right on red — it’s not mandatory. Of course, the willingness of drivers to yield that right of way varies greatly, often leaving pedestrians like Martha Apple with the short end of the stick.

“I went to step off to cross 5th Street, and the guy — of course you know what he didn’t do, he didn’t really stop, right,” says Apple. “He just sort of rolled up and rolled around the corner. And fortunately, I was just then stepping off the curb and could move back.”

Fansler says there’s always more that can be done to raise awareness about these issues, but he adds that work is ongoing. To publicize the right of way for pedestrians, there’s North Carolina Department of Transportation’s Watch for Me NC program, frequent interactions with the Bicycle and Pedestrian agency, and an advisory committee made up of local enthusiasts who help get the message out.

Plus, he says, to deal with noncompliance on the part of drivers interacting with pedestrians, a patrol team provides targeted enforcement at troublesome intersections throughout downtown.

“And they’ll set up basically an officer that will act as a pedestrian, and then they’ll have subsequent officers downstream where if there’s a conflict and maybe the vehicle didn’t give the right of way to the pedestrian when it required him to do so, then we have a downstream officer ready to cite them, pull them over, have that conversation about what’s going on and remind them of what the law is,” he says.

Fansler points out that pedestrians have responsibilities too. They need to understand where the crossing locations are and where they need to be within the crosswalks — never outside them — and to always be aware of the pedestrian signals. Fansler says they’re located at most intersections downtown. Some are activated by buttons, but more often they’re triggered automatically — coordinated with stoplights to display a “Walk” indication whenever an allowable walk time is permitted. For example, a green light for northbound drivers means a “Walk” display for northbound pedestrians.

“What we do see a lot is folks that are unaware of their surroundings. They’re not aware of where they should be, and they’re not aware of what the other turning movements of the vehicle are doing,” says Fansler. “They’re in the street, maybe not aware of when they should be there. And so, put your phone down, make sure that if you’re crossing the street, you’re interacting with the vehicles and that should be taken seriously.”

Fansler says to facilitate more pedestrian-friendly crossings downtown, DOT is in the process of converting wide one-way streets with multiple lanes downtown to two-way which he says should have a traffic calming effect that allows for safer pedestrian crossings. He adds that there are dozens of other bicycle and pedestrian projects ongoing. They include extending greenways, adding additional sidewalks, and building pedestrian bridges.




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