Difference of opinion on left turns at red lights

The in basket: PEMCO Insurance has begun issuing weekly lists of story ideas it thinks will interest and help its clients, among whom I am counted.  This week’s list dealt mostly with hazards created by extremely hot weather.

Last week’s had an item that made me sit up and take notice. “Speaking of road questions,“ it said, “misconceptions about free left-hand turns onto freeways could be costly for drivers trying to make that move (that’s because legally, you’re not allowed to).”

Whoa, said I, that’s not what I’ve been telling readers of the Road Warrior column for many years.

State law permits a left turn against a red light after stopping fully and yielding to any traffic with the right of way, but only on to a one-way street where no sign prohibits such turns. Freeway on-ramps, I have asserted, are one-way streets and my local police contacts have agreed.

Twice I have interceded for readers who took my word for that after they got a ticket for doing it. Both times, the tickets were excused.

Derek Wing produces the weekly PEMCO lists so I called him to ask what makes him think the action is illegal.

The out basket: He got it from a report on KIRO Radio, by reporter Chris Sullivan, Derek said.

KIRO Radio or Sullivan has something called MyNorthwest.com, where he wrote, “We’ve all heard of the free right turn after coming to a stop, but a lot of drivers don’t realize they can also take a free left, in certain circumstances.

“Several drivers on MyNorthwest.com commented that they routinely take free lefts onto freeway on-ramps, believing that it was legal to do so.

“Here’s the scenario: They are sitting at a light with a red left-turn arrow. They turn left onto a freeway on-ramp, against the red arrow, once on-coming traffic has cleared.

“They believe the law allows this. I wasn’t so sure. I checked with the police, including the state patrol, and they say that is not true. Freeway on-ramps are not considered one-way streets unless marked as such.”

Next I tried to call Sullivan to see who he’d talked with. It turns out that trying to reach KIRO Radio by phone is next to impossible and an e-mail I sent asking that he call me wasn’t returned.

So I asked my go-to WSP source, Trooper Russ Winger, to see if he agreed with whatever sources Sullivan had used.

Such a turn “is legal,” Russ replied. “There is nothing in the RCW  that implies that it is illegal.”

It’s usually a moot point, as you almost have to be the first car in line at the red light before you get a chance to make the turn, because the law is so little known that few drivers will do it. I’d be surprised if anyone could “routinely take free lefts onto freeway on-ramps.”

If you want to join those of us who do it, know the law is RCW 46.61.055, section 3-c and be prepared to cite it if you get stopped. And know that some in law enforcement over in Seattle think it’s not legal.

One other thought. I was reprimanded often when I had used the term “free left” or “free right” to describe a turn against a red light. The authorities regard that as a “right on red” or “left on red” and say a free left or right has no traffic control, like the right turn from the Waaga Way off-ramp to Ridgetop Boulevard in Silverdale.

One thought on “Difference of opinion on left turns at red lights

  1. That is very interesting.

    Its funny that you bring up the right turn from the Waaga Way off-ramp to Ridgetop Boulevard in Silverdale. there is no stop sign there and yet just about every single car going through there will come to a complete stop. Heck there is not even a yield sign, because that turn lane goes for a ways down the hill giving a driver plenty of time to get over. But hey those same drivers go through there everyday and still don’t get it. They will continue to stop there until a major accident happens. But the biggest problem with that corner is the fact drivers want to jump over the 2 lanes to turn left. Someday, mark my word.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Before you post, please complete the prompt below.

Is water a solid or a liquid at room temperature?