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Right Turn on Red!

August 25, 2011 - 12:05pm

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Right Turn on Red is a policy that was enacted in the 1970s to help save drivers fuel and money at the pump. | Energy Department Image | Photo by Hantz Leger

Right Turn on Red is a policy that was enacted in the 1970s to help save drivers fuel and money at the pump. | Energy Department Image | Photo by Hantz Leger

Last week, as part of our inaugural edition of Plugged In! -- an email newsletter for staff and contractors here at the Energy Department -- I asked readers for more information about the Right Turn on Red policy that was enacted in the 1970s to help save fuel. I’m happy to report that we received several responses from individuals across the Department with more information about the policy, which has been saving drivers fuel and money at the pump for decades.

As it turns out, this is a great example of how state and local governments can learn from each other – and how a very simple policy change can produce huge benefits for the country, helping us all save money by saving energy.

Prior to the 1970’s, some states already allowed drivers to turn right on a red light, but many others – particularly in the eastern half of the country – did not. Then came sky-high prices at the pump (and gas-rationing) during the 1973 Oil Crisis and the 1979 Energy Crisis. During those years, the heightened cost of fuel coupled with the tough economic climate made citizens more aware of their energy usage on a national level. Policies like this one became more popular throughout the country.

With a little help from our readers, we’ve pieced together a bit of history on this energy and money-saving policy that was managed in the early days of the Department’s State Energy Program, which is now a part of our Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. As one diligent Plugged In! reader here at the Department told me:

“Following the energy crises in the 1970s, the Federal Highway Administration tasked [legendary transportation engineer ] Alan Voorhees to lead a team of researchers in analyzing benefits from the Right Turn on Red System.  Voorhees and his associates reported that RTOR saved between 1 and 4.6 seconds (or 9 and 30%, respectively) of drivers' time.  The Energy Department felt this was a significant improvement, and subsequently included the finding and the suggestion that RTOR be nationally legalized in their nationwide plan for increasing energy efficiency.  Incidentally, RTOR in the United States goes all the way back to New York City's traffic control system in the 1920s.”  (Want to read more?  There’s lots more great background here in this report)

In case you have to see it to believe it, check out the results from this episode of Discovery Channel’s Myth Busters, which proves that by eliminating the idling time of a car sitting at a light and permitting right turns, fuel efficiency is increased exponentially – especially for delivery trucks.

The professionals over at UPS are also in on the fuel-saving secret. The major package delivery company requires their drivers to turn right whenever possible, and map their routes accordingly.  In a 2008 interview, a UPS spokesperson told the Boston Globe that UPS drivers “are trained to map their routes to turn right whenever possible, [which] saves fuel and reduces emissions by minimizing the length of time our trucks are idling. And it's safer too, because you don't have to cross traffic."

In addition to “Right Turn on Red,” the Energy Department has helped promote other money-saving energy policies, from car pools to mass transit to popular “bike share” programs.  And we are always on the lookout for innovative local ideas the help Americans save money by saving energy.  If you have ideas from your community, share them with Secretary Chu on Facebook or leave us your feedback here.

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