Rules of the Road

Driving from a private lot to a public road? Here’s what you need to know

Question: If I leave a parking lot that is private property and a sign on the property says right turn only, can I get cited for making a left turn, even if there is no oncoming traffic?

Answer: Yes, but I think I understand where you’re coming from. Outside of a few criminal violations like DUI and reckless driving, traffic laws are not usually enforced on private property. There are a few exceptions, which I covered in a previous Road Rules article. However, it’s a little different when the private property meets the public roadway. At a minimum, the law requires drivers coming from a private road or driveway to yield to traffic on the public road.

In commercial developments, like the parking lot of a grocery store or shopping center, there often are additional requirements. When a new development is proposed, engineers conduct studies to identify the impacts to traffic, and may require the development to include improvements to traffic flow as part of the permit process. This could be anything from adding a stop sign where the parking lot meets the public street, to building a signalized intersection with additional turn lanes. It just depends on how much of an impact this new commercial venture will have on traffic.

A change in signage also could happen after development. For example, if traffic flow increases or crash data supports it, a driveway that previously had no turn restrictions could be revised to prohibit left turns. Bellingham has an ordinance addressing this specific issue.

Regardless of whether the sign is installed by the city or by a developer, drivers are required to obey all regulatory signs. The law states that if a traffic sign is installed in a location that conforms to standard traffic control rules, drivers should presume that it’s an official traffic control device.

But what if the city didn’t require the sign and instead the parking lot owners decided to put it up on their own? Would compliance to the sign still be required? That is actually a highly unlikely scenario; here is why: It’s illegal.

In the words of the law, edited for readability, “No person shall place upon or in view of any highway any unauthorized sign which resembles an official traffic-control device or which attempts to direct the movement of traffic.” No matter how good the intentions, a private property owner is not allowed to put up a sign telling drivers how to enter the roadway.

Traffic engineers have a responsibility to move people through their jurisdiction while balancing safety and efficiency. This includes safely moving traffic from private property to public roads. This often happens during new development, but also can occur as traffic conditions change and signage needs to be modified to suit the current traffic levels.

Any time you move from a private development to a public road, presume that any traffic control device is fully enforceable.

Road Rules is a regular column on road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices. Doug Dahl is the Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit Ask a question.