Truly the right turn?


Early on a warm, summer day, John Doe downshifted his tractor into eighth gear, applied the engine brake and rolled down the exit ramp from I-31 toward his next drop. The 48-foot reefer van full of ice cream he was towing came steadily behind because of a tight fifth wheel, and the brakes were surprisingly responsive considering that he was running at 79,850 pounds GCW. Doe descended the ramp smoothly, gradually down-gearing as he approached the bottom. Soon, he had pulled gently up to the white line in front of a pedestrian crosswalk at the bottom.

Doe was turning right. He checked his view to the left, finding it unobstructed except for a very small road sign he could easily see around. The traffic signal at the intersection remained red, but there was no traffic coming from the left. This was a right-turn-on-red state with no signs forbidding a right turn at this intersection. And there were no pedestrians in view in either direction. So Doe came gently up on the clutch and began to pull toward the intersection at less than 5 mph.

There was a stop sign at the corner because the traffic light operated only during daylight hours. Doe cautiously and gently slowed a bit at the sign, reaching idle speed in first gear while turning his head left to make sure the way was still clear. Seeing nothing to interfere with safe travel, he gradually got back on the throttle.

Just as the truck began to gain speed again, Doe heard the “whump” of crushing sheet metal through his open window and felt a slight shock transmitted through the fifth wheel. Loud cursing, apparently from the driver of the vehicle that had hit him, immediately followed the sound of the crash. Doe’s mirrors revealed nothing. Still only partly blocking the intersection, he applied his brakes at a normal pressure and then, after his rig had stopped, pulled out the parking brake buttons, slipped the transmission into neutral and exited the cab.

A quick look behind the trailer revealed that its rear bumper had been smacked by a 1940 pickup truck painted primer gray. Doe idly wondered whether its driver had somehow been distracted by the smiling face of Mrs. Peachy painted large on the trailer’s sliding rear door. Fortunately, the only damage seemed to be to the hood of the pickup, which was seriously crinkled. Doe was not fully convinced its male, teenage driver was completely sober.

The next day, Doe received, much to his surprise, a warning letter charging him with a preventable accident. This was based on the theory that he should have waited for the green light before proceeding into the intersection to avoid all confusion on the part of following traffic. Doe immediately filed a protest with the National Safety Council’s Accident Review Committee.

NSC ruled in Doe’s favor, concluding there was nothing unsafe about legally making a right turn on red given the traffic and pedestrian-free environment. The gentle hesitation to double-check for traffic at the stop sign was certainly prudent in light of the slight obstruction created by the road sign on the shoulder to Doe’s left, rather than reckless. Doe was off the hook!