A second look at a controversial bend in the road

Motorists wait to turn right — or proceed straight? — at Exit 16 off the Massachusetts Turnpike in Newton.
Motorists wait to turn right — or proceed straight? — at Exit 16 off the Massachusetts Turnpike in Newton.
(Matthew J. Lee/ The Boston Globe)

It’s as true in transportation as it is in life: Things are rarely ever simple.

Last week, I used this space to bring up the issue of a right turn (or is it a slightly curved straight thoroughfare?) in West Newton, coming off Exit 16 on the westbound Massachusetts Turnpike.

A traffic light on the offramp had caused one reader confusion: Is it considered a right turn, where motorists can proceed after stopping and looking both ways?

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Or is the traffic light simply at a bend in an otherwise continuous stretch, suggesting that motorists must wait until a green light before gunning it?

MassDOT said the turn was not a turn — and was therefore illegal.

“Even though the road curves to the right, because there are no other movements aside from the left turn separated by that island, drivers are still making a ‘through movement,’ or going straight,” said spokesman Mike Verseckes. “Therefore, they must stop at the signal and may only continue on when the signal turns green.”

But many, many people disagreed.

Transportation reporter emeritus Eric Moskowitz, my predecessor, who takes this exit frequently to visit his folks, declared that he’d always understood it as a right turn. “If you do not turn there, people will honk at you like crazy!” he said.

And I received a flurry of e-mails from readers boiling with protestation.

“By the law as [MassDOT] explains it and as most of us understand it, those making a left must wait for the green light, but those going right can stop and turn right onto Rte. 16,” wrote reader Bob Schlauch. “Obvious.”

“I’ll keep doing it,” said Evan Weststrate of Newton, “unless there is a police officer not making the turn alongside me.”

“Here’s a radical idea: When the roadway geometry gives rise to ambiguity, post a sign to reduce confusion,” said Chris O’Brien, a West Newton resident, who said that he’s been “a regular ‘right on red’ driver at Exit 16 since 2005.”

And then there were those 172 comments left on the Starts & Stops blog on boston.com — all of which made for very colorful reading.

A couple of readers brought my attention to a 2005 item in a Globe West edition of Starts & Stops, where it was determined that Newton’s traffic engineer at the time deemed the intersection a legal right turn.

He said, “I can see why some people might be confused,” but he and a Massachusetts Turnpike Authority official demurred on putting a sign in the spot to clarify.

Because of the controversy, I asked more questions. And now, I have even less clarity.

Officer Michael McSweeney of Newton Police Department’s traffic bureau said the turn was legal, even when the light was red: “You can definitely go right on red there,” he said.

But Patrick Baxter, Newton’s traffic engineer, had a surprising response: The ruling from the Newton Traffic Council is that it’s not quite sure.

“We haven’t had a chance to develop any kind of official position,” Baxter said.

But hope for a definitive answer is in sight.

Baxter said the issue has officially gone onto the docket for an upcoming Newton Traffic Council meeting, so in December or January residents will be able to weigh in, and the traffic council will make a determination on what the legal action is.

The council is also expected to discuss what signs it can put in place to clarify what’s expected of drivers. (I’ll keep you posted when that meeting is scheduled.)

In the meantime, I ventured out to West Newton earlier this week to get some firsthand experience with the intersection.

Wary of becoming a common Newton scofflaw, I waited patiently in the right lane at the red light, expecting a honk from the motorist behind me.

Instead, a black pickup truck to my left blew through the red light and continued on to Route 16 without so much as tapping his brake.

That, I thought, is definitely illegal!

Or at least, I’m pretty sure. At this intersection, you never know.