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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883


Breaking the law?

I’ve written of the gray areas of driving lately, and two readers have just sent questions regarding another one.  In fact, this gray area arguably allows drivers to break the law.

J.D., a driver new to Washington, wonders, “In Spokane, I notice that when a person is making a left hand turn at a light, they do not enter the intersection until they can fully make the turn safely.  When they do this, sometimes it takes several lights before there is actually space to make the turn.  I am from Canada, where we always enter the intersection as far as we can, and then complete the turn when it is safe.  Most of the time, at least two cars can scoot through when the light turns yellow, and the oncoming cars are stopped.  This is helpful when traffic is heavy, and helps keep things moving along.  Is it illegal in Washington state to do this?”

Coincidentally, reader R.M. asked, “Had one question, when arriving at an intersection with a green light, I always enter the intersection and wait for an opening to complete
the left turn.  I find most people in Spokane stay at the crosswalk and wait for an opening.  Am I wrong?”

Those comments pretty well portray the topic in question.  The procedure they describe for accomplishing left turns is not officially legal in Washington, but it is generally tolerated by law enforcement.  I’ve questioned WSP Troopers I’ve ridden with on the topic, and none have indicated that they would typically issue tickets for the practice.

They realize, like R.M. and J.D. imply, that many lights will cycle at certain intersections with no one getting to make a left turn due to heavy oncoming traffic, unless the turner enters the intersection upon green indication and turns quickly when the oncoming vehicles stop for a yellow/red indication.  Accordingly, officers tend to forgive the rule that disallows entering the intersection until you can clear it, in the interest of allowing efficient traffic flow in some instances.

The Washington law that prohibits entering an intersection upon green indication unless you can clear the intersection is RCW 46.61.202.  It reads:  No driver shall enter an intersection or a marked crosswalk or drive onto any railroad grade crossing unless there is sufficient space on the other side of the intersection, crosswalk, or railroad grade crossing to accommodate the vehicle he or she is operating without obstructing the passage of other vehicles, pedestrians, or railroad trains notwithstanding any traffic control signal indications to proceed.

Actually, by that specific wording, it can be argued that entering an intersection to wait for traffic to clear to make your left turn is not strictly forbidden.  And in law, it is generally accepted that what is not forbidden is allowed.

But even if you are allowed to enter an intersection while preparing to turn left at a green light, there is nothing in the law requiring motorists to do so.  As a result, it’s not right to blast your horn or otherwise exhibit anger toward those who prefer to wait behind the stop line until all oncoming traffic clears before making their left turn.

Sitting behind such drivers may indeed delay or prevent you from ever making that turn, so it might be better to avoid those intersections, or travel straight through them on heavy traffic occasions, and take an alternate route.

Readers may contact Bill Love via email at