Waiting in the intersection before turning left is OK, until the light changes

The in basket: Kay Wilson e-mailed me after reading the recent Road Warrior about Bremerton introducing some flashing yellow left-turn lights this year, to say, “Every time I sit behind a car waiting to turn left while the yellow light is flashing, I think of retired Bremerton police officer Tom Pratt. When I worked at the city of Bremerton, I was privileged to take at least three driver education refresher courses from Officer Pratt. Later, he was replaced by instruction videos, which never felt quite as useful, because he was always happy to entertain questions and comments.

“One of the things I remember him advising was that, when waiting in a left-turn lane to turn left, you should pull out into the middle of the intersection and be ready to turn as soon as there was an opening in the traffic. If everyone would do this, he said, more vehicles would be able to make left turns than if they were to wait at the stop line.

“I see some cars doing this at the yellow flashing lights now, and assume it is still legal and recommended, but it would be nice to know for sure.”

The out basket: Well, it’s not ILLEGAL, but puts a driver in a possible bind that could lead to an infraction.

Trooper Russ Winger, public spokesman for the State Patrol here, said, “You can be in the intersection waiting to turn left. However, that light will eventually change to red and if you are stuck in the middle blocking the intersection on red because you failed to estimate oncoming traffic – that is not OK or legal.

“Motorists need to observe oncoming traffic as well as light timing,” he continued. “Driving requires you to assess the situation at all times because it is not static. I encounter flashing left-turn lights and I do just that. I have to make an assessment whether I may get caught with nowhere to go. I personally do not enter the intersection unless I am sure I will be able to complete the turn legally.

“It is not OK or legal to block any intersection (where) other motorists have the right of way, controlled by signage or traffic signals. Many intersections have signs that say just that – Do Not Block Intersection.”

Russ didn’t address it, but a common practice when oncoming traffic keeps drivers from making the turn before their light goes red is to make sure the last oncoming car isn’t going to hurry through and hit them when they turn, then complete the turn on red. Illegal, yes, but not unusual. And with the one-second delay most traffic signals have between going red in one direction and green in the other, you might not even delay anyone.

Of course, a variety of things might hold you up for several seconds after your light turns red, increasing the likelihood of a citation for blocking traffic, or for running a red light, or both. And if you misjudge the intentions of that last oncoming car, you could get into a head-on crash.

9 thoughts on “Waiting in the intersection before turning left is OK, until the light changes

  1. I thought it was not illegal to enter an intersection on yellow. Is someone saying it is illegal to have not cleared the intersection when the light turns red?

  2. As I understand it, the car shall sit in the STOP position and signal a left turn. When traffic clears, the car may then make the left turn. If the light turns red, the car sits in the stop position and waits for the next green light, or flashing yellow light, for a clear left turn. At no time does a left turn vehicle have the right to sit in the intersection unless clear for a left turn, or am I mistaken?

    I’m sure the State Patrol can clear this up easily. Anyone asked them?

  3. I think State Trooper Russ Winger’s answer in the original column answers both Dan’s and Bruce’s question. You can enter the intersection waiting to turn, but can’t still be there legally after the light for your direction of travel has turned red.
    Road Warrior

  4. Wow sounds like a catch 22…another revenue making …for our fair city?? Seems like that is the major agenda these days sad to say.

  5. Dear Travis,

    I would like to suggest that the information given to you by Trooper Winger, regarding a flashing yellow left-turn light was not correct. The advice given in your column dated May 16, 2012 may also be in error. Here’s why….

    When a vehicle passes under a flashing yellow left-turn light and is legally in the intersection, that vehicle being safely in the intersection has the right of way to proceed under caution to complete the left hand turn.

    Since the vehicle in the intersection maintains right of way until the turn is completed, even after the light changes to red, (which by the way, is not up to the driver to estimate) , other vehicles must yield until the turn is completed and the intersection is cleared.

    From the Washington State Traffic codes:

    Chapter 46.61 RCW
    Rules of the road

    RCW 46.61.065
    Flashing signals.

    (b) FLASHING YELLOW (CAUTION SIGNAL). When a yellow lens is illuminated with rapid intermittent
    flashes, drivers of vehicles may proceed through the intersection or past such signal only with caution.

    RCW 46.61.185
    Vehicle turning left.

    The driver of a vehicle intending to turn to the left within an intersection or into an alley, private road, or
    driveway shall yield the right-of-way to any vehicle approaching from the opposite direction which is within
    the intersection or so close thereto as to constitute an immediate hazard.

    The rules above seem to apply.
    RCW 46.61.065 seems to apply to the flashing left-turn signal and if followed, places a vehicle legally in an intersection.

    RCW 46.61.185 tells when the turning party yields the right of way. That infers that once a driver is legally in the intersection that he has the right of way except for the period during which there is “any vehicle approaching from the opposite direction which is within
    the intersection or so close thereto as to constitute an immediate hazard” .

    Simply put, the person entering an intersection under a flashing yellow left-turn light has the right of way except in the case where it is relinquished under the rule until the turn is completed. They also, therefore can not be blocking an intersection as all other vehicles are to wait until the left hand turn is completed.

    Bill O’Rourke

  6. I recall Officer Pratt explaining that even if there was no break in the oncoming traffic during the green light, you would have a few seconds to turn left between the moment when your light turned red and the time when the cross-traffic light turned green.
    However, this was a long time ago, and back then it wasn’t as common for people to run the red light as it is now. Whether those bold folks would think twice about running the light if they saw your car sitting in the intersection, signaling to turn left, is another question.

  7. I live in Memphis (grandchild here however). Another son attended a bad driver’s school to avoid a stiff fine. He loved it and he liked the instructor’s free floating approach. I told my son to ask about one car entering from the left turn lane into the intersection (on green) in order to wait for a chance to complete a left turn. Answer: In Tennessee you must have a clear path to exit before entering the intersection. If you cannot complete the maneuver, even if you are going straight through, you cannot legally enter the intersection. Not what I had been taught but it does make sense.

  8. There are too many angels on the head of this pin . . . the law is clear: “[I]t is undisputed that Ellwein made a left turn where there was no left turn signal which would give her the right-of-way. A driver making a left turn at an intersection must yield the right-of-way to any vehicle approaching from the opposite direction. A driver turning left must yield to an oncoming vehicle, even if it can be shown that the oncoming vehicle was proceeding unlawfully.”  Ellwein v. Hartford Acc. and Indem. Co. 95 Wash.App. 419, 143, 976 P.2d 138 (1999), review granted on other matters.

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