Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Turn! Turn! Turn!

Back before it was legal to turn right on a red light, there was no such thing as a “No Turn on Red” sign. It would have been like a sign that said “No Ramming Other Cars” or “No Running Over Pedestrians,” because, obviously, there are just some things so illegal you don’t need to be reminded of them. You don’t see a lot of signs that say “No Murder,” “No Arson,” “No Embezzling,” etc.

I was living in Indiana when it became legal to turn right on red, and my dad used to share his theory about why the law was passed. He always said it was because some sign company had a surplus of No Turn on Red signs and needed to get them out of the warehouse.

I could see his point. Shortly after the law was passed, No Turn on Red signs popped up all over in Crawfordsville (the largest city close to us, and for a long time the largest city I wasn’t afraid to drive in). We had this great new law designed to improve traffic flow, but somebody was arbitrarily deciding which intersections it couldn’t be used at.

Because, my dad joked, or half-joked, someone got a good deal on those signs.

The first moving violation of my life came in 1986 in Decatur, Illinois, when I failed to notice the No Turn on Red sign at the corner of Woodford and Garfield. I came to a stop, made sure nothing was coming, and turned right onto Garfield Avenue—on red. Busted.

I don’t know why you couldn’t turn right on red there; after all, if you looked to your left you had a pretty straight shot down Garfield. So even though I was driving safely and endangering no one, the City of Decatur hit me up for a few bucks thanks to an arbitrary sign placement.

The maddening part about that ticket was that one block west of the Woodford/Garfield intersection, there was just a stop sign at the cross street. The visibility was worse than it was on Woodford, but if you wanted to turn right onto Garfield you were free to do so at your discretion.

Laws that promote the general welfare are good. Laws that are just revenue-generators are not.

Here in the Des Moines metro, we’re in the fifth year of a five-year plan to revamp and expand I-235, the freeway that runs through the middle of town. The project has included rebuilding a number of bridges and widening the exits (two turn lanes in each direction on some of them—big-time!).

The problem is that when they rebuilt some of the bridges, they extended the little concrete wall between the road and the pedestrian walkway across the bridge. They extended them so much that when you came off the exit and wanted to turn right on red, you couldn’t do it without taking your life in your hands.

Because the wall stuck out so far it was impossible to see if traffic was coming.

The sensible solution would have been to shorten the walls a little bit. However, the sensible solution lost out to the cheaper solution. Apparently that warehouse still had lots of No Turn on Red signs, because now half the exits off I-235 forbid turning right on red.

It was the right move for safety reasons. But with gas over $3 a gallon and awareness of energy conservation on the rise again, we have hundreds of cars idling at these exits every day. Does that make sense?

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