In the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ Driver’s Manual, it all seems so simple: You must come to a complete stop at a red traffic light. You may then turn right unless a NO TURN ON RED sign is posted.
But what happens when you can’t tell if you’re turning right or not?
Francie Kelley of Belmont wrote about a predicament I immediately found familiar. Traveling west on the Pike, she often gets off at Exit 16 in Newton. On the ramp, the road bears right, and there’s a traffic light. And if Kelley is unlucky enough to be the first car in line waiting at the red light, she has no idea what to do. Stay stopped at the light, because she’s technically “going straight,” and it’s illegal to proceed until green? Or treat the intersection like a right turn and proceed after a pause, because the road itself veers right?
“If the light is red, many people stop here, look, and proceed as if it is a right on red,” Kelley commented. “Others will stay stopped until the light turns green because it is a red arrow. Mostly people are confused.”
“What,” she asked, “is the correct way to treat an intersection like this?”
I took the question to MassDOT spokesman Mike Verseckes, and then tacked on my own inquiry: A similar intersection in Dorchester, where a turnoff from Columbia Circle merges onto Mount Vernon Street, from which point drivers can turn right onto Old Colony Avenue. The turn onto Old Colony Avenue isn’t quite a 90-degree corner, but instead a gentle bend that makes you feel as if you’re almost going straight once you reach the traffic light.
Verseckes came back with an answer, but beware: It gets a little complicated.
In the Newton example, though Kelley’s vehicle may be veering right as it makes its way across the intersection, she continues to travel on the same thoroughfare.
“So, even though the road curves to the right . . . drivers are still making a ‘through movement,’ or going straight,” Verseckes said. “Therefore, they must stop at the signal and may only continue on when the signal turns green.”
But at the Dorchester intersection, drivers are shifting from one thoroughfare to another — no matter if the “curve” of the road looks similar to the Newton example.
“Even though the road curves around to the right, this would be considered a turning movement,” Verseckes said. “So after stopping at a red light, and yielding the right of way to pedestrians and other vehicles, a driver can continue on to Mount Vernon Street, before the signal turns green.”
So, in short: If that bend to the right is puts you on a different road, it counts as a right turn. But if your gentle right-ward curve is simply a contour as you continue on the same thoroughfare, it’s a no-go: You must wait patiently at the red light.
“Quirky, no doubt,” Verseckes said. “But those are the rules.”