Cars turn right at a red light while people wait at the intersection on University and Shattuck Avenues. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Berkeley could soon bar drivers from making right turns during red lights.

The City Council took an initial step Thursday night toward making that change, which street safety groups say can help reduce the risk of car drivers hitting pedestrians and bicyclists. Berkeley could ultimately prohibit the maneuver along streets where crashes are common, or go further and ban it at all of the 135 intersections in the city that are controlled with stoplights.

Allowing drivers to make right turns on red lights after coming to a stop is the default at stoplights nationwide today — but that wasn’t always the case. The practice became widespread during the gas crisis of the 1970s, when it got the OK as an effort to cut down on wasted fuel from drivers idling as they awaited a green light.

But several cities across the country are rethinking right on red amid a national increase in serious traffic crashes since the turns typically require drivers to pull into intersections and across sidewalks when pedestrians and bikes are crossing.

San Francisco posted signs prohibiting the practice at dozens of intersections in the Tenderloin last year, while Washington, D.C., approved a ban at most stoplights in October and Ann Arbor, Michigan, voted to prohibit it in the city’s downtown, the government news site Route Fifty reported.

Although turns on red lights account for less than 1% of injury crashes in San Francisco, officials there credited the Tenderloin’s right-on-red ban with reducing the number of “close calls” between pedestrians and drivers, as well as the frequency of drivers blocking crosswalks.

Advocates who protested earlier this week at the downtown Berkeley intersection where a man was struck and killed by a truck driver on Oct. 20 called for a right on red ban and other changes, such as eliminating “beg buttons” that require pedestrians to request a walk signal and installing “bulb-outs” to slow turning cars and shorten crossing distances.

“Policies like eliminating right on red are smart and easy ways to begin the process of deprioritizing car use in Berkeley and placing lives [above] driver convenience,” read the item from Councilmember Terry Taplin that was approved at Thursday’s City Council meeting.

In an interview, Taplin called the change “a low-cost way to keep crossings clear and to improve safety.”

The item is a budget referral, meaning the council will have to decide during budget revisions later this month whether to provide the $135,000 it seeks for new signs prohibiting the move.

Taplin’s proposal was amended to ask city staff to develop recommendations for where right on red will be banned and present that plan to the City Council. Berkeley could prohibit the turns in commercial districts, on streets identified as high-injury corridors or throughout the city.

The item requests enough money to post signs prohibiting right on red at every intersection with a traffic signal, though Taplin said that given limited funding the city should prioritize high-injury streets.

There was no organized opposition to Taplin’s proposal Thursday night, although Councilmember Kate Harrison initially expressed reservations about a city-wide ban. She and the rest of the council voted unanimously to approve the item, which was part of the consent calendar at Thursday night’s meeting.

“I support this in principle, but I would like us to pilot this first,” Harrison said. “I’d like to see how it goes, and whether it presents any other safety issues we haven’t thought about.”

Nico Savidge joined Berkeleyside in 2021 as a senior reporter covering city hall. Born and raised in Berkeley, he got his start in journalism at Youth Radio as a high-schooler in the mid-2000s. Since then,...