Clearing up red arrow signal confusion

The in basket: judy Kaylor asks in an e-mail, “Will you inform your readers, including me, about the rules of the road for a red or green arrow light governing a right turn at an intersection? We’ve understood in the past that a red light at an intersection permits us to make a free right turn, traffic permitting.  However, I’ve been instructed that a red arrow on a specific right turn at an intersection means ‘stop where you are until the arrow turns green.’

“In Silverdale, at least, I’ve seen many drivers continue to take a free right turn on a red arrow light.  And if I’m at the head of the line waiting for the green arrow light, I’ve been honked at and waved at to get moving.

“Clarification of the rules of the road on this situation would be helpful for all of us,” she said.

The out basket: If Judy was informed of the above as regards this state, she was misinformed. A driver facing a red arrow light is as entitled to make a right turn as one facing a red ball light, under the same restrictions: the driver must come to a complete stop before turning, must yield to any conflicting traffic with the right of way, and there can be no sign forbidding the turn, such as the signs you will see in Bremerton on Callow Avenue at 11th Street and on Montgomery Avenue at Sixth.

And as noted here previously, that is also true of both lanes with the double red arrow lights such as on 11th Street at Kitsap Way.

I used to call those free rights, too, but my sources finally broke me of the practice. They are rights on red. A free right requires no stop before turning. The southbound Waaga Way (Highway 303) off-ramp at Ridgetop Boulevard is a free right.

If you have a taste for legalese, you can read the relevant state law, RCW 46,61.055. That’s the same one that permits that oddest of deviations from driving practice, the left turn against a red arrow signal, but only onto a one-way street, such as a freeway on-ramp.

You almost never see it done, because it’s rare that the first person in line at such a place (westbound Burwell Street and Pacific Street in Bremerton, for example) knows it’s legal.

6 thoughts on “Clearing up red arrow signal confusion

  1. I thought a left on red was only legal from a one way street to another one way street, so that way you are not crossing traffic from another direction.

  2. That’s certainly what you would expect, and I had to double- and triple-check this little known deviation when I stumbled upon it in the state RCWs more than 10 years ago. Most drivers don’t know of it, and I even had to intercede on behalf of a Road Warrior reader who got a ticket for doing it. Neither the officer who wrote the ticket nor his chief knew of the law until then.
    Th state Drivers Guide confirms it. I quote from it, “A red arrow means you must stop and you cannot go in the direction of the arrow. You may proceed when the red arrow goes out and a green arrow or light goes on. If you are turning right, you may turn after coming to a full stop if it is safe and if there is no sign prohibiting the turn on a red arrow. You may also turn left onto a one-way street with traffic moving left after coming to a full stop if there is no sign prohibiting turns on a red arrow when it is safe to do so.”
    You can see for yourself at, page24.

  3. If a right red arrow means the same as a red ball, why on earth don’t they just use a red ball all the time so that drivers know what it means? I don’t see the special purpose of a red right arrow, and obviously many many drivers don’t know what it means.

  4. Unless otherwise posted, as is the case coming into Bremerton, turning right onto Burwell – if those arrows are red the sign says “No turn on red”…

  5. Original email to the Road Warrior posted by request from Travis:

    Ah, Road Warrior! You are normally so reliable at referencing the Manual for Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) when explaining new traffic signals (such as blinking yellow left arrows) that I was certain that you would explore Washington’s deviation concerning red arrows. I don’t dispute what the RCW or the WA Drivers License Manual lists concerning the use of solid red right (or left onto a one-way) arrows, but I believe it to be different than many states and is in direct conflict with the MUTCD.

    I was taught that a red arrow (right or left) means stop, and remain stopped until you receive a green signal. After moving here, I was surprised and befuddled when I received angry honks, gestures, and yelling from the car behind me as I politely waited behind red right turn arrows. A short time later I discovered the official reason when reading up for my WA Drivers License test. In the 10 years since, I have heard the same story repeated over and over from people who move in from out of state. Almost all received the same honks and were confused by what they seem to remember from their Drivers Ed days.

    It seems counter-intuitive to many people to have a red left arrow (not onto a one-way) mean stop and do not proceed until green, yet the same arrow signal applied to a right turn mean turns are allowed, i.e., the same as a red circle. It also begs the question if a red right arrow and a red circle have the same meaning, why have two signals in the first place. So after reading your column yesterday I was inspired to google the MUTCD.

    The December 2009, MUTCD states the following:

    “2. Vehicular traffic facing a steady RED ARROW signal indication shall not enter the intersection to make the movement indicated by the arrow and, unless entering the intersection to make another movement permitted by another signal indication, shall stop at a clearly marked stop line; but if there is no stop line, before entering the crosswalk on the near side of the intersection; or if there is no crosswalk, then before entering the intersection; and shall remain stopped until a signal indication or other traffic control device permitting the movement indicated by such RED ARROW is displayed.”

    To ensure I wasn’t speaking out of turn, I did a quick search for how adjacent states apply the MUTCD, by looking up their drivers manuals. Most states (CA, ID, MT, SD) say something like: “A red arrow means “STOP.” Remain stopped until the green signal or green arrow appears. Do not turn against a red arrow.” However, I did find Oregon’s rules to be essentially the same as Washington: “The same turns allowed for a steady red signal are allowed for a red arrow.” So it would appear that the author of the RCW and Oregon’s equivalent made a deliberate choice concerning solid red turn arrows.

    So in closing, waiting politely at a red arrow may result in a mildly embarrassing moment for an out of state driver, however, it is the life-long Washington driver who should be cautious when driving in other states–Good luck explaining to the California Highway Patrol that you could have sworn turning through a red arrow was allowed back home…

    Bremerton (originally South Dakota)

  6. I’m born and raised in Washington State (1972) and when I took my driver’s Ed class in high school it distinctly taught to remain STOPPED at a red arrow, and only proceed when it turns green. I don’t understand when this changed, or why, but it must be from all the Californians and Mexicans who have invaded our State! They drive like MANIACS! They must be the reason for the rule change. Just gotta keep it chaotic, and they have no patience.

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