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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883


Open to interpretation

Each state has formed a lengthy list of road rules, attempting to govern every driving scenario with a required course of action.  Within those laws, one can find a prescribed behavior to match nearly every traffic situation.

At times, however, those specifics of required driver actions are absent, ambiguous, or otherwise open to interpretation.

Reader R.R. presented such a context, writing, “Two lanes each way, with left turn lane, and driver approaches intersection in the left lane to make a left turn in the intersection.  Oncoming traffic in the far right oncoming lane keeps coming, and coming, and eventually light changes back to red. If car attempting left turn does not proceed into the intersection, no cars in that lane will move on that light, and this can happen again and again with no movement in the left turn lane for several cycles.”

That condition can indeed arise following the letter of the law.  But R.R. continued, “On the other hand, if the car attempting a left turn proceeds out into the intersection, when the last vehicle coming from the other intersection clears the lane, the left turning car can then turn left and clear the intersection.  In addition, a car following that also enters behind the first car may also be able to turn left and clear intersection, without obstructing traffic. This way the left turn lane can continually move traffic. For this to work, however, RCW 46.61.202 (Stopping When Traffic Obstructed) would have to apply only to traffic proceeding straight ahead, and not left turning traffic.  Your take on this?”

To my knowledge, there is no direct reference to this common traffic situation in law. It seems to be neither allowed nor forbidden according to legal specifics.

WSP Troopers I’ve spoken with generally concur that they don’t issue citations to drivers adopting the procedure of getting into the intersection upon a green indication for their chance to turn if a red indication appears before oncoming traffic clears.  Basically, the case R.R laid out represents the justification for the maneuver, and becomes the defense in the unlikely event that a driver ends up in court.  It seems to fall in a “gray area” of road rules.

Actually, according to RCW 46.61.202, a driver can legally move their vehicle into intersection if accomplished “without obstructing the passage of other vehicles, pedestrians, or railroad trains notwithstanding any traffic control signal indications to proceed.”  That requirement is met while the light is green and quickly becomes a non-issue when the light turns red and the left turner clears the intersection. Fortunately, the 4-6 second delay before cross traffic sees green after red appears for the left turner helps facilitate this.

Based on a desire to help efficient traffic flow, I will continue to “sneak” into the intersection from left-turn lanes upon green indications even if oncoming traffic will not allow an immediate turn, especially at those intersections where I know sitting behind the stop line will cause the oncoming traffic to thwart my left turn perpetually.

I will also have my defense ready in the event I run into an officer of the law who doubts my reasoning.  When driving, one should use reasoning and judgment to derive behavior conducive to safety and efficient traffic flow.

Another example arises at four-way stops.  The basic law is that the first one to arrive and stop departs first.  Additional law states that if two vehicles are stopped at the same time, the driver of the vehicle on the left must yield right of way to the driver of the vehicle on the right.  But what happens if all four vehicles are stopped simultaneously?

Since everyone is on someone else’s right, what generally happens is somewhat of a free-for-all where drivers try to cope through a mix of hand signals, false starts and cursing.  It’s simply something we have to figure out on our own in each case.

Using a two-way left turn lane for a “waiting” lane to enter traffic or only merging at the last second in construction zones are also debatable maneuvers.  How do you behave in these situations?

Readers may contact Bill Love via email at