Left turns against red lights are rarely legal

A reader asked whether they are allowed. The law’s clear on when.

Behind passing on a two-lane highway and parallel parking, few other parts of driving cause as much anxiety as turning left without a dedicated left-turn signal.

There’s a lot to factor into the decision. Oncoming traffic and those drivers’ speeds. Your own approach and speed. Is the crosswalk clear? Double check the vehicles coming your way. Another look at the crosswalk. Wait, did the signal change?

Our brains process distance, light, speed and time. Even when we think we can go safely, collisions happen because of misjudgments caused by acceleration, darkness or distraction.

This column has dedicated hundreds of inches to left turns over the years. Where they are absent but needed, like at 128th Street SE in 2018. Intersections with more signals than traffic lanes. Left turn lights that take drivers into someone’s driveway in Everett. A flashing yellow arrow while other lights are solid red in Marysville.

The latest was an askew intersection in north Lynnwood where drivers going straight can pass directly under a left-turn-only sign (yet the left turn lane prior to the intersection is clearly marked as such).

But Kent Hanson of Everett asked about turning left when the light is red. He said he recalled a local television story about the law permitting such moves if the through traffic has a green light and there isn’t a sign specifying when or when not to turn.

“I haven’t seen many such signs but when I treat the solid left turn red signal like a flashing one, I usually get a honk or two from the folks in line behind me,” he wrote. “Do you know what’s true?”

Ah, truth. What a concept.

In general, please don’t turn against a red light, and even when you turn with a green light, do so with caution for the crosswalk and traffic. In December I was sideswiped because another driver thought they could turn against the red light and did so — into my car.

State law is pretty clear that turning left against a red light is only narrowly legal. The specific law is Revised Code of Washington 46.61.055, which states that doing so is allowed when turning into a one-way street — a rarity across Snohomish County.

“Unless posted, a driver may turn left against a red light onto a one-way which has a green after they yield the right of way to traffic and pedestrians (or anything lawfully in the intersection),” Everett Police Department spokesman Aaron Snell wrote in an email. “… There are not that many one-way streets that include a stop signal in Everett and I cannot think of one this pertains to. On a helpful note, there are some in Spokane …”

He also cited RCW 46.61.055 section 3(a) as what best applies. Italicized portions are for emphasis:

“Vehicle operators facing a steady circular red signal alone shall stop at a clearly marked stop line, but if none, before entering the crosswalk on the near side of the intersection or, if none, then before entering the intersection control area and shall remain standing until an indication to proceed is shown. However, the vehicle operators facing a steady circular red signal may, after stopping proceed to make a right turn from a one-way or two-way street into a two-way street or into a one-way street carrying traffic in the direction of the right turn; or a left turn from a one-way or two-way street into a one-way street carrying traffic in the direction of the left turn; unless a sign posted by competent authority prohibits such movement. Vehicle operators planning to make such turns shall remain stopped to allow other vehicles lawfully within or approaching the intersection control area to complete their movements. Vehicle operators planning to make such turns shall also remain stopped for pedestrians who or personal delivery devices that are lawfully within the intersection control area as required by RCW 46.61.235(1).”

Hanson, who asked about the red light laws, said he’s done so heading to Highway 526 from southbound Evergreen Way/Highway 99. After all, the freeway on-ramp is only one way.

“I am especially interested in avoiding sitting at the southbound Evergreen Way entrance to the Boeing freeway with no oncoming traffic for two or more blocks,” he wrote.

If readers know of roads where this applies or they suspect it applies, especially in Everett, let me know. I’d like to write about one-way roads and their histories (and possible futures as Snohomish County’s population likely grows) for a future column.

As always, be safe on the roads and take another look.

Have a question? Email streetsmarts@heraldnet.com. Please include your first and last name and city of residence.

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