Rules of the Road

Do you need to signal turns even on dead end roads?

Officer reminds drivers to use their blinkers

The Colorado State Patrol has some fun reminding drivers there's no excuse for not using their blinkers.
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The Colorado State Patrol has some fun reminding drivers there's no excuse for not using their blinkers.

Question: On a residential no outlet road, is it law that I must use my turn signal to make a right turn into my own driveway? If a residential road has no white center line, can I be pulled over for supposedly driving up the middle of the road? In particular, when there is plowed snow on the shoulders of such road?

Answer: I’m wondering if this two-part question was prompted by a single law enforcement encounter. Or maybe I’m wrong about that and it’s just a debate among friends. If the questions did stem from a traffic stop, I expect that the officer would have already provided the answer to the driver in the form of a warning or a ticket.

If it’s a debate, allow me to settle the argument.

The first question is easy. The law clearly states that a turn signal is required any time a driver turns a car right or left on a roadway. There are no exceptions, even when you live on a dead end street, when no one else is on the road, or when you’re driving a Porsche. (You can substitute “Porsche” with the vehicle of your choice based on whatever car most recently pulled in front of you without signaling. A Porsche what pulled in front of me last night.)

I get that it seems pointless to signal into your driveway on a no outlet road. I used to live at the end of a quarter mile long gravel road. And when I got to my driveway I signaled my intention to turn. I didn’t signal because it was the law or because I was trying to be safe; I didn’t even realize I was signaling; it was just a habit. The turn signal would blink into the wilderness while my wife would laugh at me for warning the squirrels that I was about to turn.

As pointless as my signaling was, I think there’s some value in it. Signaling all the time, even when it doesn’t matter, is actually helpful. It develops an automatic behavior that you don’t have to think about.

Deciding when to signal based on road type or traffic volume requires cognitive resources (although an admittedly tiny amount). But in a high-pressure driving situation, you need every cognitive resource you can get.

If you have to consciously decide to activate your turn signal while also looking for a gap in the traffic of the lane next to you and evaluating the cause of the brake lights and smoke up ahead in your lane, you’re compromising your decision-making abilities.

Yeah, it’s a small compromise, but the difference between a crash and a near miss isn’t much either.

And then there’s this: even if you’re not in a potential crash situation, forgetting to signal before turning is one of the fastest ways to get everyone else on the road to dislike you before they even meet you.

And now for the question about driving up the middle of the road.

State law requires that, “Upon all roadways of sufficient width a vehicle shall be driven upon the right half of the roadway, except . . .”

Everyone who drives should already know the part before the comma; it’s what follows the “except” that can illuminate things for us.

First, I’ll point out that there is no exception for roads that don’t have a painted center line. The right side of the road is still the right side of the road.

But there is an exception for “when an obstruction exists making it necessary to drive to the left of center.”

If the plowed snow that was mentioned in the original question is blocking (or partially blocking) the lane a driver could legally cross the center of the road to maneuver around the snow.

But it’s not a free pass; if you need to move into the other side of the road to avoid a pile of snow, an abandoned bicycle, a lost cow, a grizzly bear chasing a bison down the road (it really happened – Montana, 2010) or any other obstruction, you’re required to yield the right-of-way to any oncoming traffic.

Everyone's a social media comedian these days but lets give Washington State Patrol trooper C. Thorson props for creating a pretty funny phony public service announcement for "Blinker Fluid." Ranks right up there with snipe hunting.

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Doug Dahl, Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force, answers questions about road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices every Monday. Ask him a question using our form. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit TheWiseDrive.com.
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