U-turns, while generally legal, aren’t sometimes

Q: At some intersections, and even some mid-block locations, I see no U-turn signs. I thought U-turns were generally illegal, especially mid-block. If that’s true, then why post no U-turn signs?

A: I once saw a bumper sticker that said, “God allows U-turns.” Either that’s a metaphor or God hasn’t gotten through to the lawmakers in some cities and states. In Washington, that bumper sticker and our state law are closely aligned, but that’s not the case in Oregon or even in some cities in our state.

If you’re an Oregonian visiting Washington, you might think we have a bunch of scofflaws making U-turns wherever we please. And if you’re a Washingtonian visiting Oregon, you might get surprised by a ticket for what you thought was a legal U-turn.

I don’t usually get into traffic laws in other states, but when a bordering state’s law doesn’t match up it can be helpful to be aware of both.

In the Beaver State, U-turns are prohibited at intersections controlled by a traffic signal, between intersections within any city limits, and at any place where a vehicle can’t be seen by an approaching driver (within 500 feet in a city and 1,000 feet outside of one.)

Washington law seems lax in comparison. Here, U-turns are generally allowed as long as you can do them safely and without interfering with other traffic. The two restrictions in state law are that you can’t make a U-turn in a curve or when approaching a hill if your vehicle can’t be seen by an approaching driver within 500 feet.

Given the few limitations in the law, you can probably imagine (or you’ve found yourself in) places where you’d never consider making a U-turn, even though the situation isn’t specifically described in the law.

To address U-turn safety concerns, cities can write local laws that prohibit U-turns on specific streets, districts, or even the entire city. Tacoma generally prohibits U-turns unless they’re at intersections without any traffic control signs, signals or markers (which you’ll only find in very low-traffic areas), in locations where “the U-Turn is made through an opening provided for that purpose,” or at an intersection with a sign authorizing a U-turn. Yakima prohibits U-turns in their business district (unless designated otherwise) and mid-block U-turns outside a business district.

In cities where the U-turn law mostly matches state law but has a few exceptions, you might find signs where U-turns are prohibited. In cities where they’re generally prohibited, you’re probably not going to see “No U-turn” signs everywhere, so it’s up to you to be aware of the law. It’s also unrealistic to know the various iterations of U-turn laws in every municipality, so if you’re in a city where you don’t know their U-turn laws, you might want to be extra-cautious. Safety is the first priority, but also the legal penalties might be more than you expect. As a final example, Bremerton’s code states that U-turns are prohibited everywhere unless there is a sign allowing it, and violation of the law is a misdemeanor (a crime) rather than a civil infraction like most traffic violations.

Doug Dahl, who is with the state Traffic Safety Commission, writes a weekly column for this newspaper.