Frustrating Traffic Situation at 19th and M St NW – Accident Waiting to Happen


“Dear PoPville,

The past few weeks I’ve gotten more and more frustrated with drivers in the left turn lane intersection of M street at 19th westbound. You see, a few months ago DDOT installed a left hand turn signal in addition to the normal light in place for motorists going continuing straight on M st.

The light cycle includes a point in which the left hand turn signal is red, but the other stoplight is green. This should indicate that motorists are unable to turn left, correct?

Apparently, wrong.
Every light cycle, I see cars, trucks, taxis, and all other methods of transport blatantly disregard this signal. I’ve seen tour buses almost run people over, cabs cutting off other cars, and even an MPD cruiser breeze through this intersection with blatant disregard.

Considering this is a heavily trafficked intersection, this lack of enforcement of traffic lights creates a particularly dangerous situation.

I’ve tried to contact DC’s “Traffic Safety and Special Enforcement Branch” with no success and no response. Even a sign saying “No left turn on red” would make somewhat of a difference, I would hope. Do your readers having any suggestions for getting MPD or DDOT to either install traffic cams or have officers issuing tickets?”


71 Comment

  • This intersection is a complete nightmare. I have to go through it multiple times daily. Its not just the vehicles that ignore the signal. I see pedestrians constantly dart into the street as soon as they see the green light for vehicular traffic, despite have a red crosswalk signal. They recently switched the signalling where now the vehicles turning left get control of the intersection first, instead of allowing the pedestrians to cross first. Like I said, it’s a big ole mess.

    • Agree with everything you said. The cars run the red arrow, the pedestrians dart out as soon as they see that it’s a green light (despite having the Do Not Walk sign flashing), and the cyclists are turning onto here whenever they want (and nearly hitting pedestrians in the crosswalk or getting flattened by southbound traffic coming down 19th).
      The whole area is a disaster. And don’t get me started on the delivery trucks that park in the left and right lanes on 19th during rush hour, effectively turning a 3 lane road into a 1 lane parking lot…..

    • Completely agree. As a ped, I try be patient. The walk signal is pretty long (25 seconds I think, maybe longer) and after a few seconds the crosswalk is almost always clear and safe.

  • I work in that building at the top right in these photos, so I know this intersection well. It is very frustrating. More so now than before the signal was changed. Before, there was predictability. Now, you don’t know if the car will ignore the red arrow, or if peds will ignore the “don’t walk” signal. I occasionally have meetings in a corner room that overlooks this intersection. In the particularly dull (phone) meetings, it is very exciting to watch the inevitable conflict that arises here.

  • I agree it’s really frustrating when drivers do this. But this type of configuration isn’t uncommon. I think the issue here is the lack of a “Turn on Green Arrow Only” sign, which are typically used on lights like this. If that gets added, there’s really no reason why this intersection shouldn’t work, right?

  • You can’t fix stupid. There’s a bright red turn arrow. That doesn’t mean turn at your discretion, it means you can’t turn. These drivers are blatantly disregarding pretty clear and obvious signage. I’m not too familiar with this intersection, but I’m guessing before cars would just turn into the crosswalk when they had the green light even though pedestrians clearly had the walk signal.

    • yup… This is the long and short of it. As a frequent pedestrian, I see motorists doing all sorts of nonsense from running red lights to making U-turns *for the explicit purpose of attempting to run over legally-crossing pedestrians*. That being said, ignoring “No Turn On Red” signs is so par for the course that I don’t really expect anyone to follow them anymore.

      • How do you make a U-turn at an intersection with two one-way streets?

        • Ask a cabbie, he’ll figure it out…

          But no, really… The incident in question wasn’t on a one-way street. A car that was turning right on green from Q onto 14th St. NW southbound nearly hit some pedestrians crossing 14th headed east with the light. The pedestrians complained, so the motorist pulls a U-turn on 14th and tries to hit pedestrians, then gets out of his car and wants to fight them. Indicative of the motorist mindset…

        • I think he was giving examples of poor driving, in general, that one often sees in DC. I agree with him.

    • This also happens all the time with right turns through red arrows on Logan Circle, and I’m sure many other areas as well. The “no turn on red” signs rarely work for right turns, because there appears to be a widely held perception that turning right on a red light is a God-given right, at least for Marylanders. But I do think it would be more effective at left-turning intersections such as this.

      • I work down by USDA and it’s clear that the god-given right to turn right on red extends to Virginia drivers as well.

  • Just because it’s a red arrow does not mean necessarily that you can’t turn on it (similar to how in most jurisdictions you can take a right on a red arrow after a stop). I’m not sure what DC laws say but in many states you can make a left on red (including red-arrow) from a one-way street onto another one-way street. So it’s entirely possible it’s legal. Just don’t know what the official DC law is.

  • It’s pretty much the same thing at 19th turning east onto L. There’s one turn lane, but people are constantly turning from 2 or 3 lanes over and drivers are turning right on the red arrow all the time. Just helps prove my theory that driving in DC in pure chaos.

  • I used to cross there every day, before the light was installed. Saw a woman get hit by a car. There’s already a crosswalk and a law giving pedestrians the right of way. If that’s not enough to stop a driver from running people over, what is a tiny little red light going to do? It won’t stop until pedestrians start carrying around baseball bats and bash in every fender and headlight that comes near.

  • I agree completely – I take it a couple times a week. There needs to be better enforcement there through 19th st towards L including enforcement of people parking on both sides illegally causing a huge cluster during morning rush hours.

  • I used to cross there every day, before the light was installed. Once saw a woman get hit. There’s already a crosswalk and a law giving pedestrians the right of way. If that’s not enough to stop a driver from running people over, what is a tiny little red light going to do? It won’t stop until pedestrians carry around baseball bats and bash in every fender and headlight that comes near.

  • I have almost been hit by a car while in the 15th St bike lane on 2 separate occasions when I had the pedestrian green signal AND the cars had the red arrow. I was able to avoid being hit only because I was biking carefully and defensively. I have decided to believe it was because the drivers didn’t understand the red arrow because the alternative is too depressing. I don’t have any great suggestions but do know that when I emailed commander kishter of MPD to ask him to post a plain clothes, bike or motorcycle officer or similar near the intersection to ticket or at least warn/educate, I got a prompt response, recognition of the issue, and a promise to look into it. I really appreciated it, although I don’t know what, if anything, was done.

  • My wife let her license expire and had to retake the written test in DC. It is DC law that left on red is never legal.

    A quick Google shows that left on red arrow is actually legal in some places when you’re turning onto a one-way street and maybe or maybe not from a one-way.

    I think DC and anywhere else there might sometimes be a pedestrian should implement “No ANYTHING on Red” laws. It’s just not safe for anyone not in a car.

  • This perfectly illustrates what a frustrating place D.C. is to navigate. The combination of awful traffic, poorly-timed lights, washboard-like (or worse, non-existent) bike lanes, and sparse/unreliable public transit makes for a whole lot of testy people.
    Add to that a whole lot of out-of-town drivers (including those from the MD and VA suburbs), and it’s a dangerous combination. I’m not sure what the solutions are.

    • Why blame out of towners? Cab drivers are generally the biggest offenders. They flout laws knowingly. What about bikers that zip past red lights? Or pedestrians that don’t wait for a walk sign before the cross? For instance, on 16th and U, many don’t care that the left turn sign for those wanting to go south on NH Ave or 16th comes first. They just blindly start walking.

      People (even locals) just don’t care.

      • *Cab drivers are generally the biggest offenders.* Metro bus drivers are insulted by this statement and promise to drift into more bike lanes and run additional red lights in the immediate future.

        • LOL. Good point.

        • Please, most Metrobus drivers are excellent drivers doing a very difficult job.
          Cab drivers deserve all the criticsm they get, and then some.

          • +1, absolutely right.

          • No I was waiting to cross the street and a metro bus crossed the intersection on his green even though there was no space for him to enter the next block due to a backup of cars. Since he was blocking both the crosswalk and part of the intersection, I walked in front of him and he opened his window and yelled at me that I was the dangerous one and that I should walk behind him. In the intersection?! Where oncoming cars wouldn’t see me? He made the situation dangerous! You don’t block the box.

  • I actually almost got hit by a car at this very intersection yesterday while I was crossing the street (I had the cross signal) and a driver blasted through the red light.

  • Seems like this intersection needs both a “Left Turn On Green Arrow Only” sign and for the circular green light to be changed to a green arrow pointing forward (M Street westbound).

  • I suggest DDoT invest in RR crossing gates for these intersections. When red arrows are lit, gates are down!

  • In order for laws to work, they need to be enforced. DC rarely and randomly enforces laws for bicycles, automobiles, and pedestrians, thus leading to chaos regardless of the location. Add to this confusing traffic patterns and nonsensical timing of lights, and the result is dangerous.
    By the way, if we’re voting for our favorite intersections where we see the law consistently broken, mine is the left turn onto Harvard from 16th St. heading south. I drive by there a few times every week, and the big “No Left Turn” sign is consistently ignored. Welcome to the Jungle.

    • I live right by that intersection, and inevitably whenever I hear extended honking it’s because someone is trying to turn left onto Harvard and is annoying the long line of traffic behind them. They usually get the message and move along after a few seconds.

  • Also, there are 2 left turn lanes on M and other than during rush hour when there are parking restrictions, there is only 1 lane on 19th street for them to turn onto. Does not make sense.

  • Agreed. This intersection is bad news. Pedestrians consistently ignore the red “no walking” crosswalk sign when the cars have a green turning arrow, and the cars ignore the red no turning arrow after their light has turned.

    I understand why they added the new turning light to give cars early priority, but the intersection needs some enforcement if the safety benefits of the light are going to be seen.

  • And I keep seeing people directing traffic just a few blocks closer to Connecticut – why not put one at that intersection too?

  • Prohibit left turns in that intersection. Problem solved.

    • You can’t because people use this turn (and those on the surrounding blocks) to get around the “NO TURNS” on K Street during the rush hours. That’s why this area is such a mess.

  • PDleftMtP

    DC Code is actually ambiguous on this, though of course if you’re turning right on red you have to yield to everyone else:

    18-4013.1 Right turns after coming to a full stop and yielding right-of-way to pedestrians and other vehicles shall be allowed when facing red traffic control signals, except at locations listed in this section.

    A red arrow is a “traffic control signal.” See 18-2103.8.

  • the bike lanes on M street are an unmitigated disaster. They have parts of the road down to a single lane and have ruined parking in front of my building, which is going to drive food trucks away 🙁

  • I saw a police officer pull a car over at 5:30pm today for turning left on the red here, so it appears they are aware of the problem.

  • It’s probably the case that many residents of DC have never visited a large city in the developing world (Bogota, Cairo, Mexico City, Guatemala City, Panama City, Salvador, Lima, etc.). The traffic gridlock — and grotesque rule-breaking by drivers — in downtown DC is absolutely as bad as that which you encounter anywhere in the Global South. In fact, in many respects, it’s worse because drivers feel entitled to “own the road space,” whereas drivers in many cities like the ones I listed (e.g. Cairo) are used to pedestrians mixing around their cars at any moment. The pedestrian experience of downtown DC does not feel like a well-ordered society in Western Europe or Japan — instead, it feels like Bogota (and, well, the quality of the roads and sidewalks make it look like that as well). Until we discipline drivers with robust enforcement of running red lights, blocking the box, blocking crosswalks and general disregard for the rights of vulnerable road users, we continue to have death, carnage — and general unpleasantness — throughout DC. We need a congestion charge, dedicated bus lanes, more dedicated cycle tracks, and camera enforcement at all major intersections. If drivers don’t like my proposals, I say to you, why are you afraid of following the law?

  • If you think a sign will keep drivers from running a RED LIGHT you are naive. Anyone running a red light will continue to break the law until they are ticketed. Numerous intersections in this area are the same way. It’s not that bad, toughen up and stay aware!

  • Clearly drivers are violating the law, probably/mostly for four reasons:

    1. Ignorance (don’t know the rules of the road)
    2. Willful violator (don’t give a sh!t)
    3. Confused (see below)

    Much of the confusion may come from the fact (at least as show from the photo) that there appear to be two “left turn only” signs directly beneath a pair of signal lights. Unfortunately, while the left most signal is a red arrow, the subsequent signal (above the second “left turn only” sign) is green.

    Does that mean the left most turning lane can’t true but the next turning lane may? As stated elsewhere, a no turn on red sign would help some (but not fully – see reasons 1,2, and 4)

    4. Follow the Leader syndrome.

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