No turn on most red lights: New law considered by Bloomington city council for downtown, campus area

At a committee-of-the-whole meeting on Wednesday, Bloomington’s city council reviewed a new ordinance that would add nearly 80 new spots in the downtown and campus area where making a turn at a red light would be prohibited.

Under Indiana law, vehicles are allowed to make a right turn when the traffic signal shows red, if the way is clear. Left on red is also allowed—from a one-way street onto another one-way street.

The ordinance, which is sponsored by three councilmembers, is intended to reduce crash risk for vulnerable road users, like pedestrians and bicyclists. The three sponsors are Kate Rosenbarger, Ron Smith, and Steve Volan.

The proposal comes a year after a driver headed south on Washington Street, stopped at a red light at 3rd Street, then turned right onto 3rd Street, and struck a pedestrian in the crosswalk, killing her.

Indiana University law school student Purva Sethi died from the Feb. 8, 2020 crash.

City staff members support the council-initiated new law. And based on Wednesday’s deliberations, the additional no-turn-on-red intersections will likely win approval when the ordinance is considered for a vote on April 7.

This is an excerpt from a map showing locations of signals where a turn on red would be prohibited. Blue dots indicate signals where turns on red are already prohibited. Red dots are signals where turns on red are proposed to be prohibited. (Image links to meeting information packet containing the full map.)

At Wednesday’s meeting, councilmember Jim Sims picked up on a line in Rosenbarger’s slide deck that said, “On a macro scale, if you keep making it easier for people to drive their cars without waiting, more people drive more.”

Sims asked if the intent of the ordinance is to reduce the amount of vehicle traffic.

Responding was Smith, who said he didn’t think a reduction in driving was ever a part of the intent. The intent, Smith said, was to make intersections safer for pedestrians and bicyclists.

Neil Kopper, senior project engineer with the city, said at Wednesday’s meeting that staff were “admittedly hesitant” when the ordinance was initiated by city councilmembers. Kopper elaborated: “But after diving deeper into the data, and looking at the specific locations, we are fully supportive.”

Kopper concluded, “We do think this will improve safety for everyone, and especially for pedestrians, our most vulnerable road users. And we expect there will be only very minimal delay trade-offs to those in motor vehicles.”

Asked by Sims to explain why staff were initially hesitant to support the ordinance, Kopper said, “The primary thing is… if you prohibit turns on red, then you’re increasing turns on green.” Kopper continued, “So you have a certain pedestrian conflict with turns on red, and you have a different pedestrian conflict with turns on green. So there’s potential that your turns on green are actually more problematic than your turns on red.”

After looking at the specific locations that were proposed for no-turn-on-red, Kopper said, staff did not see any geometric features of the intersections that might cause turns on green to be more problematic than turns on red.

Councilmembers Susan Sandberg asked how public education about the new ordinance would be done.

Kopper said the main education tool would be the “No Turn on Red” signs placed at the level of the traffic signal, where motorists will be looking. Kopper pointed to the confined geographic area as a help in meeting the educational challenge: “You probably do get some benefit of focusing on an area like this, where now every single traffic signal in this area will have that same rule, and it’s probably easier to learn.”

Volan suggested that a couple of additional signs could be installed at entryways to the downtown and campus area, that say something like, “Now ‘No Turn on Red’ throughout downtown, please keep an eye out for those signs.”

According to the memo in the council’s meeting information packet, Bloomington’s director of public works, Adam Wason, has pegged the cost of the new signage at $50 per sign plus $50 for installation for a total estimated cost of $8,000.

Based on the memo in the meeting information packet, Bloomington’s police department would not see much of an impact for their enforcement activity.

The memo says, “All traffic regulations (stop signs, speed limits, etc.) require direct observation by a police officer in order to be enforced.” The memo continues, “Bloomington Police Department does not anticipate prioritizing resources to specifically enforce these proposed turn on red restrictions.”

The memo concludes that most drivers will comply anyway: “However, it is assumed that a majority of drivers do not intentionally violate laws.”