Rules of the Road

How far can you drive in the center lane before turning?

Cars turn at Barkley Boulevard and Orleans Street in Bellingham May 19, 2016. Drivers can’t use the center lane for a long distance, even if they plan to make a left turn ahead.
Cars turn at Barkley Boulevard and Orleans Street in Bellingham May 19, 2016. Drivers can’t use the center lane for a long distance, even if they plan to make a left turn ahead.

Question: I recently was waiting in traffic heading west on Barkley Boulevard just before the intersection with Racine Street. I planned to turn left on Orleans and had my left turn signal on. Three drivers behind me moved into the center turn lane and quickly drove the distance to get the left turn light on Orleans. How soon can one use the center lane to move forward in order to catch the left turn lane?

Answer: I’m confident that you are not alone in wondering about this situation. While your question stems from an experience at a specific location, your concern applies to many intersections in our region. At peak traffic times, cars may back up for several blocks in busy areas. And for drivers intending to take a left turn, that center turn lane looks pretty tempting, even a few blocks away from the intersection. Before we get too far, I want to point out for readers unfamiliar with the location described in the question that this driver will have to drive through three intersections prior to making that left turn at Orleans.

For a moment, let’s imagine we’re one of the three drivers that passed our question-asker. Maybe I’m sitting in my car thinking, “Look at all that unused pavement. If I just take that lane I’ll save a pile of time and it’ll make the line shorter for people that aren’t turning left.” Ah, the little slice of contrived altruism tacked on to our self-serving action that helps us justify our behavior.

No matter how much time it saves to take the turn lane several blocks early, it is a clear violation of the law as written in RCW 46.61.290. Let’s start with some terminology. That center turn lane is actually called a two-way left turn lane. As you might assume from the name, cars going both directions use it to turn left. It is intended for drivers making left turns into driveways, parking lots and minor roads. Two-way left turn lanes reduce congestion by moving left-turning vehicles out of the through lanes while drivers wait for a gap in oncoming traffic to make a turn. In our scenario, only a short distance before Orleans Street does the two-way left turn lane become a left turn lane for cars approaching that intersection.

Now for the rules about two-way left turn lanes: First, it is not a passing lane. The RCW states that the lane “shall not” be driven in to pass or overtake vehicles traveling in the same direction. Second, a driver can only use the lane for 300 feet. That’s enough distance to comfortably slow down from the speed limit to a complete stop while waiting for an opportunity to make a left turn. It is not intended as a quarter-mile long left turn lane for the next major intersection. Finally, drivers are required to use turn signals. I know, it’s obvious, but I include that on behalf of the many drivers who send me emails asking why people don’t use their turn signals. Use your turn signal; it’s a simple step toward global harmony.

From the original question, it’s clear that the three drivers using the two-way left turn lane violated at least two of the three rules on how to use that lane. As annoying as it is to watch people shave a few seconds off their commute by violating the law, drivers abusing the two-way left turn lane also increase the potential for a crash. There are several ways that a crash could occur, but maybe the most poetically tragic would be a scenario where drivers from opposing directions simultaneously decide to use the left turn lane as a passing lane, resulting in a head-on collision. I know traffic delays are frustrating, but whenever confronted with a “fast-versus-safe” decision on the road, choose the safe one.

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.