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Left Hand Turns and You: A Brief Explainer

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Left Hand Turns and You: A Brief Explainer


One of the most dreaded maneuvers a driver must make is a left hand turn on a two-way road. Not only does this notorious turn require deft timing and patience, it’s easily the most dangerous turn drivers face on the road. The risk is so high that UPS, the package delivery company, recently banned their drivers from making left turns altogether.

Extreme Caution and Liability

More so than other states, Washington has some of the most lenient laws governing left hand turns. Washington drivers shouldn’t throw caution to the wind though. In accidents involving left hand turns, the driver who made the turn is almost always found to be the party at fault. Drivers are expected to have a heightened duty to use extreme caution when making left turns across lanes of opposing traffic. A general rule of thumb for drivers is to wait until the path is absolutely clear before turning. The only time a left turn is fully protected is when a driver has a green arrow at an intersection.

It’s also important to check both directions before turning, for safety’s sake. Just because you may be a responsible driver doesn’t mean everyone else is. You never know if someone is recklessly driving the wrong way into oncoming traffic.

Entering Intersections: Legal or Illegal?

Easily the most stressful left turn situation is waiting for an opportunity to turn at an unprotected light. Watching a light turn green then back to red without being able to turn is a singularly frustrating experience. It’s tempting to pull into the intersection and wait for the moment when the lane is clear just after the light turns red again. But according to Washington State law, RCW 46.61.202, this is an illegal maneuver and could saddle you with a hefty fine. Put simply, it is illegal to come to a complete stop in the middle of an intersection. Unless you can drive safely through opposing traffic, you should remain behind the line until the path is clear. It’s the law.

Left Hand Turns on Red

Most people are shocked to learn that Washington State law allows drivers to turn left onto a one-way street after stopping fully at a red light. According to RCW 46.61.055, “… vehicle operators facing a steady circular red signal may, after stopping, proceed to make a right turn from a one-way or two-way street or into a two-way street or into a one-way street carrying traffic in the direction of the right turn; or a left turn from a one-way or two-way street into a one-way street carrying traffic in the direction of the left turn …” Again, one should use extreme caution when making such a turn and should only do so if the path is completely clear. It should also be noted that just because this law applies in Washington it might not apply in other states. When in doubt, you might be better off just waiting for the light to turn green.


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