Rules of the Road

Can I turn left from a two-way street onto one-way at red light?

Question: Can you turn left from a two-way street onto one-way street at a red light after stopping?

Answer: As strange as it feels, yes, you can.

There are a few scenarios provided in state law that permit a driver to proceed after stopping for a red light, even while the light remains red. Most of us are familiar with the “free right,” a term not used in the law but nearly universally understood to mean making a right turn at a red traffic light, after stopping for the light and waiting for an opening in the cross traffic.

A free right is usually allowed when turning right onto a two-way street, or when turning right onto a one-way street that is carrying traffic in the direction of the right turn (obviously).

There are some intersections that prohibit a right turn on a red light. These intersections have signs that read, appropriately, “NO TURN ON RED.” With the new bike boxes on Bellingham streets, we’re seeing a few more intersections in our community that don’t allow right turns on red lights.

Drivers also can make a left turn onto a one-way street, unless a posted sign prohibits the movement. The same rules apply: First, come to a complete stop at the red light, and give the right of way to other vehicles in or approaching the intersection.

For many drivers, this maneuver seems odd. If you learned to drive in a community without one-way streets, the first time you take a “free left” it kind of feels like you did something wrong.

Here’s the thing: If you don’t feel comfortable with it, you don’t have to take the left turn. The law permits drivers to make free right or free left turns in some situations, but it doesn’t require it.

This is a good reminder for those of us who sometimes get impatient when waiting behind another driver at a red light. You’ve got your turn signal on, the car in front of you has its turn signal on, there’s an enormous gap in the traffic, and you sit there wondering why the car in front of you doesn’t make the turn. We’re all entitled to wonder that same thing, but that driver is not required to make the turn while the light is red. Consider it an opportunity for some breathing exercises.

Also, be cautious when making a free left onto a one-way street from a two-way street. If there is a car opposite the intersection from you wanting to take a free right turn, you’ll both be turning the same way, and that driver may not be expecting you. If the one-way street has multiple lanes, remember to turn into the lane closest to you; if it’s a single lane, be alert to the possibility of the other driver making a free right turn, as well as the possibility that the other driver doesn’t know it’s legal for you to make a free left turn.

Finally, taking a free turn, right or left, involves focusing on cross traffic, looking for an opportunity to make the turn. Don’t forget about the pedestrians. They’ll be walking the same direction as the cross traffic. If you’re looking down the road for oncoming cars, make one more check for someone walking in front of you before taking that free turn.

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.