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How to cut gas use: keep going?

On a list of potential gas savers, most people probably wouldn't put traffic signal changes at the top. Still, the combination of turning right on a red light after a stop, now permitted by law in all 50 states, and cruising steadily through synchronized stoplights could save an estimated 1 billion gallons of gasoline a year.

That's why the Federal Highway Administration (FHA) and the US Department of Energy (DOE) have been pushing both projects hard.

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Although the job of convincing states of the merits of allowing right turns on red lights (known as RTOR in transportation jargon) is over unless new safety concerns reopen the issue, the move to synchronize urban stoplights has, in a sense, just begun. Its potential for saving gasoline -- perhaps 770 million gallons a year -- is far greater than that of the now-quicker right turn alone.

The FHA is about to begin training traffic officials in 11 selected cities, from Providence, R.I., in the East to Portland, Ore., in the WesT, to develop programs for retiming existing traffic signals and to collect "before" and "after" performance data. The synchronization project is expected to be in place by the end of summer. Officials hope that the working examples will spur other cities to follow suit.

"We definitely believe it's one of the best ways to save fuel, and we're sure it's going to be a success," insists Marshall Jacks, director of the FHA's Office of Traffic Operations, who estimates the overall conversion cost nationwide at about $80 million. "Most signal systems are mechanically capable of doing a much better job than they do, but few jurisdictions appreciate the potential gas savings and give retiming that high a priority."

On the same theory that unnecessary stops and starts are prime gas-wasters, the FHA also has been encouraging the removal of excess traffic signals. Milwaukee, for instance, has pared 100 of them over the last 10 years. But many people equate signals with safety, and most cities find it politically easier to add stoplights than to remove them.

Safety concerns also are resurfacing to temper the energy-saving victory claimed for the move to turn right after a pause at red lights:

* Wary officials in some cities, such as Washington, D.C., have barred more turns at signal intersections than they have permitted.

* A new Insurance Institute for Highway Safety report on the effect of the law on seven states concludes that, nationally, the cost of the change at signal intersections may be an additional 20,000 car crashes on turns and 1,400 more pedestrian injuries. All this, says the report, for a per-car saving of less than two gallons of gasoline and two hours of driver time per year. Although not pushing for a national repeal of RTOR, the institute is urging a second hard look.

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"I think the policy needs to be reassessed -- especially in urban areas where we find most of the [accident] increases," says institute vice-president Brian O'Neill.

So far, however, involved federal agencies and highway groups appear unimpressed by the findings of the report.

The Highway Users Federation, which represents a variety of users from truckers to the petroleum industry, is, according to a spokesman, "underwhelmed" by the evidencE. Bob Calvin of the federation's transportation safety division suggests that the sample was too small to warrant the sweeping conclusions. He says the projection of 20,000 crashes relates to all turning accidents and should be looked at in the context of the 18 million traffic mishaps occurring in this country each year.

"The report's conclusions aren't supported by the information in it," agrees FHA's Mr. Jacks. Still, he notes that his agency has asked the institute for additional information and will follow up on it.

Backers of RTOR stress that safety has been a prime concern from the beginning. They say that is one reason the move, which started in 1947 with California, has taken so long.

"I don't think the law is going to be changed," adds Ed Kearney, director of the National Committee on Uniform Traffic Laws. What is most needed, he suggests, is more and better driver education and enforcement of the law.

One study still out, however, that could change proponents' opinions is a probe of the RTOR effect on pedestrian and bicycle accidents by Dunlap & Associates of Darien, Conn., for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. It is expected to be finished in June.

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