Rules of the Road

Just because there’s no sign restricting U-turns at an intersection doesn’t mean it’s legal

Question: When driving on Meridian Street in the area of the mall, there are now those barriers keeping you from making a left turn. I see a lot of people making U-turns now when they get to the next intersection. Is this legal?

Answer: Before answering this question, I took a drive down Meridian just to make sure I wasn’t failing to remember any “No U-Turn” signs. In Washington, U-turns are generally legal at intersections. The exception, and I’m stating the obvious here, is when there is a posted sign prohibiting U-turns.

I’d like to point out that even though U-turns are legal at most intersections, that doesn’t make them an inalienable right. In the Revised Code of Washington’s section on U-turns, the first point states that a driver shall not do a U-turn “unless such movement can be made safely and without interfering with other traffic.”

On a street such as Meridian that has frequent heavy traffic, the question shifts from whether or not it is legal in that specific location to, “Can a U-turn be done safely and without interfering with other traffic?” I would guess that for much of the day, executing a U-turn would violate the “safely” and “interfering” parts of the law.

Consider also the practical matters of a U-turn. Depending on the size of the vehicle and the width of the road, it might be physically impossible to complete a proper U-turn. Attempting the maneuver with too big a car or too small a road converts a U-turn into a three-point turn. Or for the driver that really overestimated the road width or steering radius, a five- or seven-point turn. At the least, it’s embarrassing for the person attempting the U-turn, and can easily get worse if an approaching driver isn’t alert to the hazard.

There is a U-turn dilemma that many drivers don’t think of, but probably should. Here’s the scenario: At an intersection that is controlled by a traffic light, a driver has a green light and wants to make a U-turn. Ninety degrees to that driver’s left, another driver, who has a red light, wants to make a right turn. If I’ve described the situation clearly, you see the problem: both drivers intend to enter the same lane. The driver making the U-turn has the green light and the right-of-way, while the driver making the right turn looks to the left to make sure no cars are coming and makes a “free right on red.”

I’d like to point out that a “free right” isn’t really free. The law doesn’t use that term; instead it has a few requirements that drivers must obey before making a right turn on a red light. The top two requirements are stopping for vehicles approaching the intersection and stopping for pedestrians. Before making a right turn, a driver needs to not only watch for pedestrians and look left for traffic, but also check the area from which another driver would make a U-turn.

While we’re on the topic of U-turns, the law has a few other rules. Don’t do a U-turn in or near a curve, or near the crest of a hill if you can’t be seen for more than 500 feet. That may seem obvious, but if you’ve ever come over a hill or through a curve to be surprised by a car that’s halfway through a U-turn, you know the danger of a poorly located U-turn. If it doesn’t result in a crash, it’ll probably at least require a change of shorts.

While U-turns are legal at most intersections, they are a somewhat risky maneuver, because other drivers may not be expecting it. If you intend to perform a U-turn, make sure you have plenty of open space to complete the maneuver without interfering with other drivers. And U-turns or not, always be ready for the unexpected on the road.

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.