Rules of the Road

Is it legal to enter the intersection while waiting to turn left?

Question: Did something change for left-turners at a signal? I have noticed that a growing number of drivers in Bellingham have decided that pulling into the intersection at a traffic light when turning left is no longer a practice. These drivers are waiting behind the line and then right as the signal is turning from yellow to red make the left turn. What’s up with this?

Answer: In heavy traffic, trying to make a left turn can result in a lot of frustration. However, pulling into the intersection and waiting for an opportunity to turn is a less-than-ideal solution to a congested traffic problem. Whether it’s a legal solution depends on your interpretation of the law.

RCW 46.61.202, edited for brevity, states, “No driver shall enter an intersection unless there is sufficient space on the other side to accommodate the vehicle he or she is operating without obstructing the passage of other vehicles.” We can clearly understand that this law applies when driving straight into an intersection, where backed up cars in congested traffic prevent a driver from making it all the way through.

But does it apply to making a left turn?

Here’s how the Department of Licensing interprets the law in the Driver Guide : “Drivers must not enter an intersection unless they can get through it without having to stop.” That would seem to mean that even for left turns you shouldn’t pull into the intersection and wait for a gap.

But then it goes on to say, “You should wait until traffic ahead clears so you are not blocking the intersection.” Are they only referring to going straight or does this include left turns?

Referring again to the RCW, in the section on traffic signals, the law states that on a green light, a driver turning left “shall stop to allow other vehicles lawfully within the intersection to complete their movements.” It doesn’t specify that the driver must stop at the stop line, but I think it would be reasonable to reach that conclusion.

Finally, let’s consider how driving instructors teach their students. In a conversation with a local instructor, he said that he and the other instructors he works with teach their driving students only to pull into the intersection to make a left turn if there is a clear path all the way through the intersection. Otherwise, students are directed to wait at the stop line until the road is clear to make a left turn.

This is all consistent with a cautious interpretation of the law. Continuing with that reasoning, a police officer’s cautious interpretation of the law could result in a citation for someone who demonstrates a disagreement with that interpretation. The person who disagrees would then have the opportunity to discover how a judge interprets the law.

Aside from the legal debate, there are a few ways things can go wrong by pulling into the intersection and waiting for a left turn. The most obvious scenario involves never getting a gap in traffic and having to clear the intersection while the light is turning green for the lane you’re blocking. Most intersection signals wait a moment after one direction turns red before turning the cross traffic green so you may have a second or two to get out of the way.

A more significant problem arises if you pull into the intersection, and while waiting for a chance to make the left turn, cars traveling in the opposite direction make enough right turns to fill the lane you were planning on turning into, leaving nowhere for you to go. Now when the light turns red you’re blocking the intersection with no escape route. This makes other drivers say bad things about you, and it is a violation of the law.

Maybe the worst scenario is something called a “Yellow Trap.” Traffic engineers work to prevent this, so it isn’t common. However, on some intersections the change from green to yellow to red doesn’t coincide for opposing directions of travel. Here’s how a Yellow Trap plays out: You pull into the intersection on a green light, hoping to make a left turn, but through the entire green light cycle you get no opportunity. The light turns yellow for you, and you assume it’s turned yellow for oncoming traffic. Maybe you finally see a small gap in the traffic and expect the oncoming cars to slow and stop for their soon-to-be-red light. At the moment your light turns red you drive across the oncoming lane, and discover, by way of a collision, that the oncoming traffic still has a green light.

It wouldn’t be a complete discussion without recognizing the challenges of making a left turn at a busy intersection. There are intersections, especially the ones without designated turn lanes, where waiting at the stop line might result in no movement until rush hour is over. I haven’t encountered that in Bellingham, but in bigger cities that can be a real problem. In addition, there are other places in the country where either law or culture creates an expectation that drivers will pull into the intersection, even if there is no visible chance for a left turn. When drivers have opposing expectations about what should happen on the road it increases the chances of a collision.

Driving is more than just obeying traffic law; it also requires using good judgment. When approaching an intersection for a left turn, consider the potential outcomes of your actions and drive wise.

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.