Back-Seat Driver

Lawmaker challenges California’s $500 fine for right-turn violations

What should the fine be for a rolling right turn on a red light?
What should the fine be for a rolling right turn on a red light? Photo courtesy of Federal Highway Administration

If you get caught running a red light, straight through, you’ll be fined $500, give or take a few dollars, in California.

But what if you creep up to the intersection, with your right-turn signal blinking, look both ways, and make a slow right turn on red without fully stopping? If you’re caught, many police will cite you for the same code violation, thus the same $500 fine.

Is that fair? No way, says state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, the California State Automobile Association and others, including plenty of drivers we’ve heard from.

Hill acknowledges rolling right turns can pose a danger to pedestrians and cyclists, especially when drivers have their eyes fixed left at oncoming cars and fail to look to the right toward the sidewalk, the crosswalk and the bike lane. But a rolling right turn at low speed on red is not nearly as dangerous as blowing straight through an intersection, he said.

“That’s egregious,” Hill said of the $500 price tag. “This fine does not fit the violation.”

Hill introduced a bill this year, SB 681, to reduce the rolling right-turn fine to about $270. (That amount may vary slightly depending on the county in which the ticket is issued.)

Hill got a similar bill through the Legislature six years ago. But then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed it, saying that lowering the fine “sends the wrong message to the public that California is tolerant of these types of offenses.”

But here is the odd twist: The people in the Legislature who wrote the existing law decades ago never meant for law enforcement agencies to be able to cite drivers for illegal rights on red under the vehicle code subsection that carries a $500 price tag.

The $500 fine (back then it was about $370) was supposed to apply to straight-through drivers under code sections 21453a and 42001.15, said Mark Stivers, a former legislative consultant who worked on the 1997 bill. Another subsection of the law, 21453b, was supposed to apply to illegal right turns on red and trigger a lower fine, Stivers said. But the bill’s wording apparently is open to interpretation, and many police agencies cite right-turn drivers under subsection 21453a, which means a lot more money going into government coffers.

The Sacramento Bee’s Back-Seat Driver brought the issue to the Legislature’s attention in 2009, as part of a series of stories on how law enforcement agencies were using new red-light cameras with video capability to cite thousands of drivers for right-turn violations.

That led to Hill’s initial bill in 2010, the one that was vetoed.

This time around, Hill said, he thinks it will pass. It got through its first legislative committee vote 10-0 last week. Hill said Gov. Jerry Brown has expressed concerns about high-priced citations, making him more likely to be supportive than Schwarzenegger was back when state and local governments were in financial crises and scrounging for money.

“I think the public sentiment is there,” Hill said. “I’ve been getting complaints from constituents.”

Readers, let us know. Do you come to a complete stop before turning right on red? If not, or not always, why not and when do you choose not to? As for pedestrians and cyclists, how often do you feel endangered by rolling right-turners?