July 10, 2015

Is It Right For Google Maps to Avoid Left Turns?

A "Left Turn Lane" sign has fallen onto an urban street.  A bike rides away from it.
Courtesy of: Jen Gallardo / Flickr

By Joseph A.

Traffic safety has long been an issue in New York City.  With the newly-started Vision Zero attempting to make streets safer, some policymakers have embraced the three E’s: education, enforcement, and engineering. 

While engineering is usually interpreted as involving street design elements, a new idea from New York City Council members expands the concept to include software. 

Can you imagine if you could program driving safety into the same tools that assist driver navigation?


A few New York political officials think it’s worth a shot. Council members Brad Lander and Ydanis Rodriguez wrote a letter to Google on July 1st suggesting a couple of enhancements to the company’s Maps App. One update would create a “stay on truck routes” option for truck drivers. The second would allow users to select “reduce left turns,” minimizing the number of such turns required on a particular trip. …wait, what? What possible reason could there be to reduce left turns?

In their letter, Lander and Rodriguez cited an in-depth report from WNYC reporter Kate Hinds about the danger of left turns by automobiles in an environment where people typically travel on foot and by bicycle. According to Hinds’ report, 17 pedestrians and three bicyclists were killed in New York by left-turning vehicles last year alone. The fatality rate for pedestrians struck by drivers making lefts in NYC is the highest in the nation, according to her report.

The city’s department of transportation has continued to redesign intersections to make left turns safer by changing signals and incorporating other similar measures. But Lander and Rodriguez got the idea to ask Google to help by giving its  Maps users a “reduce left turns” routing option.
“We haven’t heard back yet,” Rodriguez said. “But we hope, knowing that Google is one of those good private entities, that Google can look at this.”

On a national scale, a quarter of motor-vehicle crashes involving pedestrians occur during left turns. A 2013 study found that when drivers make “permitted” left turns--where they do not have the protection of a left-turn green arrow--they don’t even look to see if there is a pedestrian in their path as much as nine percent of the time. Such turns pose an “alarming” level of risk to pedestrians, the study found.

The “reduce left turns” option on Google Maps would be similar to the left-turn reduction practice adopted by UPS back in 2004—although that was in the name of logistical efficiency instead of safety. The  package-delivering giant actually found that making right turns to reach a destination instead of lefts saves time as well as up to 10 million gallons of fuel in the first eight years after the policy was instituted.

Rodriguez also believes a “stay on truck routes” option would help in a city where big rigs pose a serious threat when they stray from designated routes. In their letter, the council members cite a 2007 study that showed 35 percent of truck crashes in the city happened off truck routes.

In a city with eight million residents, and more than 56 million tourists visiting in 2014, traffic safety is a pressing issue that Rodriguez wants to see addressed on all fronts.

“This is about continual working between the private and public sector,” he says. “The first cause of death for New York City children under 13 is not gangs, it’s not poverty, not violence. It’s being hit by cars and trucks. This is the time for the city to reach out to the private sector, so they can help us to provide information to drivers about where you should avoid making left turns.”

What are your opinions on Google potentially limiting left turns? Are they being too protective? Do you support their decision? Let us know in the comments below!

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