Wait for clear path before entering dangerous intersections

Q: I was recently told by a friend that the proper way to make a left-hand turn at a stoplight was to proceed into the intersection when the light turns green, then wait until oncoming traffic has cleared and make your left turn, even if the light has turned red. I was taught to wait until you are certain you will be able to turn left before it turns red. Have I been doing it wrong all these years?

A: I’ve checked the Revised Code of Washington, the Washington Driver Guide, driving instructors and police officers, and none support your friend’s position.

The law says that no driver shall enter an intersection unless there is sufficient space on the other side to accommodate the vehicle they are driving. You might read that and conclude that it’s talking about traffic jams, prohibiting pulling into the intersection when the road straight ahead is blocked. We can agree that it clearly applies there, but some officers I’ve spoken with believe that it applies whether the “other side” of the intersection is straight ahead or to the left or right.

In the section on traffic signals, the law says that drivers facing a green signal who want to turn “shall stop to allow other vehicles within the intersection control area to complete their movements.” You might argue that it doesn’t specify that drivers must stop at the stop line, but I think it’s implied. Why? The same law also requires drivers to stop for pedestrians, and that clearly means stopping before entering the intersection.

Also, the driver guide concludes that the law means, “Drivers must not enter an intersection unless they can get through it without having to stop.”

And the professionals who train our children to drive teach their students only to pull into the intersection to make a left turn if there is a clear path all the way through the intersection. Otherwise, students are directed to wait at the stop line until the road is clear to make a left turn.

As a traffic safety nerd, I’ll say that even if you conclude that the law doesn’t prohibit it, that doesn’t make it a good choice. About a quarter of all traffic fatalities occur at intersections. Think about how many miles you drive, and how little of that driving is going through intersections. Even if you only drive in the city, most of the time you’re not in an intersection.

But intersections have lots of crashes because they have lots of points of conflict. If you’re stopped in the middle of an intersection waiting for a gap to make your turn, you’ve set yourself up for all those points of conflict, all at once.

When there’s literally tons of steel rolling through the intersection the smart and proper approach is waiting for a clear path before entering the intersection.

Doug Dahl writes The Wise Drive traffic column weekly for this newspaper. He is with the state Traffic Safety Commission.