Rules of the Road

Only parking spot is on other side of the street — can you take it?

When a u-turn is legal, parking in an angled spot on the other side of the road is legal, but driver should also use caution to prevent an accident.
When a u-turn is legal, parking in an angled spot on the other side of the road is legal, but driver should also use caution to prevent an accident. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Question: Is it legal to pull into an angled parking space on the opposite side of the street (in front of the Bellingham Public Library, for example)?

Answer: I’ll begin by assuming that in this scenario, the driver pulls nose first into the parking spot rather than backing into it. If my assumption is incorrect, this is a simple question to answer. RCW 46.61.575 requires that drivers park “in the direction of authorized traffic movement.” Backing into angled parking on the opposite side of the street would be a violation of the law. But nose first, that’s a different story.

I searched through Washington’s laws trying to find an answer, but as far as I can tell, there is nothing that addresses this specific situation. So instead, let’s consider what is involved in performing that maneuver and break it down into individual components.

In its essence, parking in angled parking on the opposite side of the street is just doing most of a U-turn, or a bit extra of a left turn, and then parking. We already know it’s legal to park in the angled parking spot, so what we need to determine is the legality of the U-turn/left turn.

State law allows U-turns as long as they’re done “in safety and without interfering with other traffic.” The law mentions that U-turns on or near curves and hills are prohibited, presumably because that is inherently unsafe. At a state level then, U-turns generally are allowed. However, local jurisdictions can limit U-turns. For example, the city of Blaine prohibits U-turns in a few blocks downtown. If a jurisdiction prohibits U-turns in an area, it must be clearly posted with “No U-Turn” signs.

We could debate whether parking in an angled spot on the opposite side of the street even meets the standard of a U-turn, but I’d rather leave that for a judge. Instead of debating, I would recommend exercising caution in the few places where U-turns are prohibited and find parking on the same side of the street.

We’ve concluded that U-turns are generally allowed, but what about road markings? If a road has double-yellow lines down the center, would that prohibit a driver from crossing them for an angled parking space? As we know, a solid yellow line is an indication that it is unsafe (and illegal) to cross the line while passing another car traveling in the same direction. But the law only addresses crossing the solid line to pass another vehicle, not to make a turn. To add to the argument in favor of crossing the line to park, the Washington Driver Guide states, “You may cross yellow lane markings, except medians, to turn left if it is safe.”

Just to make sure I wasn’t missing something, I spoke with a local police officer and confirmed that there isn’t a state law that prohibits crossing the street for angled parking. However, he pointed out that just because a particular driving maneuver is legal, it doesn’t dismiss a driver’s responsibility to use caution in exercising the maneuver.

In the case of parking on the opposite side of the street, drivers need to be aware of both oncoming traffic and already-parked cars that might be about to pull out of a parking spot. A parked driver who is ready to back out of a parking spot should check for oncoming traffic, but may not be expecting a car coming from the opposite direction to turn into the lane he or she is about to occupy. And putting two cars in the same spot doesn’t work very well.

In this situation, an investigating officer might determine that even though crossing the street to park is legal, it was done in a negligent manner. RCW 46.61.525 describes negligence as “the failure to exercise ordinary care.” Here is how to determine if you’ve acted negligently in your driving: Ask yourself, “Would a reasonably cautious person do what I did?” If the answer to that question is “no” and you’ve been involved in a crash, you would be eligible for a negligent driving ticket.

If you skipped to the end for the answer, here it is: Pulling into an angled parking spot on the opposite side of the street is generally legal, but it requires caution. As is often the case with driving, this comes down to using good judgment on the road. If traffic is light and there are several angled parking spots available on the other side of the street, it might be reasonable to take one. If traffic is heavy, there is one last spot and cars on either side of the parking spot have their backup lights on, ready for the first break in traffic, that’s a good time to keep going.

A few seconds or even minutes saved with a good parking spot isn’t worth the potential tradeoff of dealing with the courts and insurance companies after a fender bender.

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.