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Should Left Turns Be Illegal?

By Aaron Crowe

Left Turn Pedestrian AccidentIf you’ve ever taken three right turns around a block to get to your driving destination instead of turning left once, you know the dangerous feeling of a left-hand turn at an intersection.

Left-hand turns at intersections cause 60 percent of crashes, while right turns cause 4 percent, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the federal agency in charge of road safety. Turn signal violations and insufficient gaps are the two main factors associated with the crashes, according to the NHTSA.

“It’s where the worst type of accident occurs,” says Robert Passmore, assistant vice president of personal lines policy at the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America.

While making left-hand turns illegal in all circumstances isn’t feasible, transportation engineers have worked to make left turns safer, and the delivery company UPS has its drivers make as few left turns as possible as a way to save gas, time and prevent accidents.

The traffic navigation app Waze is looking at changing its routing algorithm to avoid treacherous left turns known as the “Waze left.”

What makes left turns so dangerous?

Approximately 20 percent of accidents at signalized intersections involve a turning vehicle hitting a pedestrian, with left turns accounting for 60 percent of them, according to a Federal Highway Administration study.

Driving involves many skills — visual search, perception and judgement — and making a left turn in traffic only taxes those skills more. There are different left-turning signals for drivers to understand.

The FHA study focused on three:

  1. Permissive scheme, where the driver must let oncoming vehicles cross before turning left.
  2. Protected scheme, where a driver can turn left without oncoming vehicles disturbing the maneuver.
  3. Permissive/protected scheme, where a driver can turn left during a segment of the green light phase.

Protected signals were best understood by drivers, followed by permissive signals and the permissive/protected scheme.

How to make left turns safer

State transportation officials in Virginia found that simple, relatively inexpensive measures such as adding a protected turn signal to a left turn — allowing only left turns during a green turn light — dropped the average 8.7 crashes from left turns at intersections to zero, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Transportation planners in New York City found that left-hand turns were three times as likely to cause a deadly crash involving a pedestrian as right-hand turns. The city has made it a goal to reduce pedestrian deaths, and has re-engineered streets and intersections by restricting left-hand turns.

Since New York began restricting left turns more than a decade ago, pedestrian fatalities decreased 28 percent and serious injuries to pedestrians dropped 22 percent.

The best solution may be to simply require better driver training and more stringent requirements for getting a license, says Kristofer Kirchen of Advanced Insurance Managers in Tampa, Fla. While he hasn’t noticed a glut of left-turn incidents in his auto insurance business, Kirchen says they can be more severe given the dearth of side-impact protection and the disparity in vehicle sizes involved.

Traffic circles and roundabouts can make left turns easier, says PCIAA’s Passmore. “You actually might get a few more accidents, but they’re going to be slow speed” and less deadly, he says.

Right turns only

Betty Nicholas, a media services company owner and Chicago suburb driver who stopped driving a year ago when her eyesight worsened, says she has been in three left-hand turn accidents during the past 10 years while driving.

The latest was two years ago as she was turning left into her driveway. An oncoming driver motioned for Nicholas to turn, which she did and was hit by a car in the second oncoming lane that she didn’t see because it was blocked by the first driver.

“I was so shocked,” she says. “He said ‘Go,’ and I just went.”

Making left turns were a problem for Nicholas for years, partly, she thinks, because of her old age, loss of peripheral vision and turning too slow. Her solution was to make right turns around the block on busy streets.

Her solution is the same as one instituted by UPS, one of the largest shipping companies in the world, though her is less high-tech.

A year ago, the company had more drivers use its proprietary GPS system called Orion to help make its delivery drivers more efficient. In calculating the most efficient route, Orion almost never routes a left turn. Safety is one reason for using it, but also so drivers can avoid left turns where they may have to wait on a stoplight.

Author Peggy McAloon says she was rear-ended by six cars while she was trying to make a left-hand turn because “the car behind me didn’t notice the turn signal or my brake lights,” starting a chain-reaction plowing into her by a drunk driver with a revoked license. Her solution? Avoid left turns at all costs.

“I will go out of my way to avoid left-hand turns,” McAloon says. “The life-long injuries are incentive enough to take the extra time if there isn’t a signal at the corner where I need to take a left.”