drivers break the law

This article is part of a series to help drivers practice for and pass the California DMV written permit test. Most, if not all, of the driving issues discussed in this series also apply to the rules of the road throughout the US.

In driver education, we teach that driving is a skill that consists of a collection of habits. Once we form a habit, it’s very hard to break. Form good habits, and good driving follows. Form poor habits, and unnecessary risks, close calls, traffic violations, and crashes almost inevitably result.

Left turns at intersections

This article describes a all-too-common driving habit that puts drivers at risk every day: creeping into an intersection to make an unprotected left turn. This habit is not only dangerous. In many states, it’s considered a traffic violation. If you’re caught doing it, it could get you a ticket.

A turn is protected if there is a traffic signal permitting you to turn and requiring drivers in other directions to yield. An example of a protected left turn is a green left arrow signal. Conversely, an unprotected left turn is one where you may turn if it is safe to do so, but other traffic is not obligated to yield to you. An example: a blinking yellow left turn signal.

Rear, gap, path, light

In driver ed, we teach four steps to execute an unprotected left turn at an intersection: rear, gap, path, light. First, you check your rear for vehicles approaching behind you. Next, you look for a gap in oncoming traffic. You need at least a four to five second gap to cut across oncoming traffic safely. Third, you check your path of travel for obstacles, such as pedestrians crossing the street to your left, bicycles, or other vehicles. Then you check the light to make sure it’s still permitting you to make the turn. Meeting these four conditions for making an unprotected left turn is a habit you can develop so that it becomes automatic.

Creeping into an intersection to make an unprotected left turn

Even if you habitually follow these four steps when making an unprotected left turn, there’s another habit that can put the maneuver in jeopardy. Many drivers make a habit of creeping into an intersection in anticipation of making an unprotected left turn. In effect, you idle your vehicle in the middle of an intersection, waiting for a clear path to make the turn.

Take Oregon as an example. If a police officer catches you doing this, he or she can cite you for violating Code 811.340, improperly executed left turn, or Code 811.290, obstructing cross traffic.

The proper way to execute an unprotected left turn at an intersection is to wait behind the legal stop in your lane at the edge of intersection. This is usually the leftmost lane. You wait there until you have successfully accounted for the rear, gap, path, and light.

Safe and legal left turns

To review:

  • You check the rear for approaching traffic.
  • You make sure there’s a wide enough gap in the oncoming lane(s) to cross the flow traffic.
  • You see that the path beyond the oncoming lane is also clear—no pedestrians, bikes, or other vehicles.
  • You then glance at the light, if there is one, to see if you’re still permitted to make the turn.
  • After these four quick steps, you act decisively to make the left turn, crossing the intersection in one smooth motion.

By doing this, you won’t have to worry about getting trapped in the no-man’s-land of the intersection if the light suddenly changes or oncoming traffic won’t allow you to make the turn. You’ll never have to worry about dashing across the intersection as the light turns from yellow to red. You’ll be in the habit of making safe and legal left turns at intersections.