Venting: Too-courteous drivers and left-turn etiquette

By Robert Thomson
Sunday, September 5, 2010

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I am seeking some opinions about three scenarios I'm seeing on the roads:

People being nice. I have noticed more and more that drivers are attempting acts of courtesy on the road that could, in fact, lead to accidents. For instance, I am making a left-hand turn and a driver in an oncoming line of traffic stops, flashes his lights and motions for me to move across the intersection.

It's a very well-intentioned gesture, but he is unaware that a line of cars is behind him when he has the right of way (and I can certainly wait for this oncoming traffic to clear). If it were a stopped line of cars and someone opened a space for me to move through, that's one thing. But coming to a complete stop when one has the right of way is potentially dangerous. Drivers should follow established rules and not try to make up their own.

Left-hand turns, Part 1. More and more drivers are making left-hand turns by zipping across the path of oncoming traffic just as the light turns green, rather than waiting for the oncoming traffic to clear. I have seen instances in which pedestrians, heeding their walk signal and moving into the crosswalk, are practically mowed down by these drivers, whose attention is focused on clearing the intersection rather than on giving the right of way to pedestrians.

Left-hand turns, Part 2. Is it not proper practice, when making a left-hand turn, to move into the intersection while waiting for oncoming traffic to clear? I see more and more people waiting behind the stop line in the pavement or waiting back too far to allow them to make the turn efficiently.

It's been 39 years since I've been through driver's education, so perhaps things have changed. But I don't think so.

-- A. Steven Young,


Left turns at intersections are one of the most dangerous driving scenarios. Think of all the bits of information about signal lights, oncoming vehicles, weather conditions, pedestrians and cyclists that must be entering a driver's head simultaneously to make for a successful outcome.

After this Labor Day weekend, we'll experience the September shock of heavy traffic that follows our summer lull. It takes drivers a while to get used to the heavier congestion at intersections.

So in this environment, it's difficult to discourage niceness when it comes to left turns. But Young makes a fair point about good intentions going awry. Safe driving has a lot to do with shared understandings about how people will behave in traffic. In many congested communities, drivers making turns know to look for a sign that another driver is about to give them a break.

In large, cosmopolitan areas like ours, courtesy on the part of other motorists is not an expectation we tend to share. A driver yielding to another driver where that is not required can inadvertently create a dangerous situation.

But don't you find Young's second scenario, in which the left-turn driver makes an aggressive move, far more common than the "nice" scenario? Young identifies the danger: The driver who is hitting the gas often is staring ahead to judge oncoming traffic rather than looking into the turn, where people may be crossing.

Young's third scenario involves more of a judgment call. Yes, many of us were taught to move into an intersection on green, with our turn signals on, and wait for a chance to safely go. There's no requirement that we do that. The driver in back is often very brave about what the lead driver should do in the face of oncoming traffic.

Drivers preparing for left turns should judge the situation for themselves and not be intimidated by the driver in back. They shouldn't sit on a crosswalk, and they shouldn't move out into a situation likely to leave them stuck in the intersection when the light turns red, creating gridlock.

The drivers following the lead vehicle shouldn't create a line of left-turners in the middle of the intersection. You're not in the Blue Angels, performing precision maneuvers with partners whose moves you know. Hang back and await developments, even if it costs you a precious light cycle.

Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer's name and home community. Personal responses are not always possible.

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