Rules of the Road

Do I need to signal in a right-turn-only lane?

Vehicles turn left at Cornwall Avenue and Alabama Street in Bellingham on Tuesday, March 15. Even when in a left- or right-turn-only lane, drivers must use their turn signal, according to state law.
Vehicles turn left at Cornwall Avenue and Alabama Street in Bellingham on Tuesday, March 15. Even when in a left- or right-turn-only lane, drivers must use their turn signal, according to state law. eabell@bhamherald.com

Question: If I’m in a lane that is designated for right or left turns only, do I really need to use my turn signal?

Answer: The answer according to Washington’s law is “yes.”

That answer finds its support in RCW 46.61.305, which states, “No person shall turn a vehicle or move right or left upon a roadway unless and until such movement can be made with reasonable safety nor without giving an appropriate signal.” Unlike many of the other RCWs we’ve addressed in Road Rules, this one doesn’t have any exceptions. Even in a designated turn lane, a turn signal is required.

The law is clear, but for the folks who don’t like doing things just because “the man” tells them to, I can give a practical reason for using a turn signal in a designated turn lane. First, a question: Have you ever followed a driver that was oblivious to the road signs and markings? The kind of driver that drives in a designated turn lane until, at the last second, he realizes where he is and swerves into the lane next to him?

If you’re in a turn lane and you don’t signal, other drivers may wonder if you’re that guy. And that guy makes other drivers nervous because he’s unpredictable. When you signal, you make your intention clear to other drivers around you. Predictability reduces risk while driving, and, statistically, driving a car is probably the riskiest thing you’ll do all day. Whatever you can do to reduce risk is worth the effort.

And how much effort is it, really? I measured the amount of time it adds to my commute when I extend my finger from my steering wheel to my turn signal indicator, and it adds exactly nothing, obviously. It also takes less effort than many drivers make to change a radio station, drink a latte, put on makeup, eat a burrito, dial a phone number or any of the other activities people do while driving (not all of them legal).

Using a turn signal is an easy way to communicate to other drivers, it increases predictability and reduces risk. If you won’t signal for “the man,” do it for your fellow drivers on the road.

One last note: This wasn’t part of the original question, but I want to address the phrase “reasonable safety” as found in the law quoted above. There are some drivers (you know who you are) who think that using a turn signal grants them permission to make a lane change without bothering to see if there is actual room for another car. The law isn’t an either/or proposition. Drivers must signal and make sure it’s reasonably safe; we don’t get to pick which one. It’s both.

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. Ask a question.

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