We Teach Driving Like Your Life Depends On It

How to make a left turn to safety

By Steve Wallace, Times Colonist, May 6, 2011

City planners generally try to limit the number of left turns drivers must make across oncoming traffic. Left turns are the most dangerous low-speed driving manoeuvre you can make.

The left turn is by far the most dangerous low-speed driving manoeuvre.
Traffic engineers have gone to great lengths to eliminate the left turn across the path of an oncoming driving lane.

The one-way street system in most big-city downtown commercial zones is an answer to the left turn veto by city planners. Because the one-way grid allows for an uninterrupted left-turn vehicle flow, there are fewer crashes at these types of intersections. It is also safer for pedestrians and cyclists when drivers do not have to worry about the threat of oncoming vehicular traffic.

The roundabout and traffic circle is another solution to the all-too-dangerous left turn across oncoming traffic. When all the traffic is flowing in the same direction, the crash rate falls dramatically, sometimes as much as 50 per cent. There is very little chance of anything other than an incidental-contact parallel type of crash. The fewer the electric/electronic controls at an intersection, the fewer the number of crashes.

The green flashing advance arrow, designating the unobstructed intersection left turn, is another example of how municipalities are trying to protect the travelling public. By stopping oncoming traffic to allow left-turn traffic to proceed unobstructed, there is much less chance of a collision. Despite all of the above mentioned precautions that have been taken to avoid confrontation at left turn intersections, there are some situations which remain quite dangerous. Here is the best way to handle them.

  • Always keep the steering wheels straight, when waiting for oncoming cars to clear, before making the left turn at an intersection. If your vehicle is ever hit from behind at such an intersection, it will go straight and not into the oncoming traffic, exposing the passenger to extreme peril. The most common crash is the rear end collision. The most common place for such a rear end crash is at the intersection.
  • Always move to the middle of the intersection when waiting for oncoming traffic to clear prior to a left turn at a solid green light. When the light changes to amber and quite possibly to red, it is only safe and legal to clear the intersection by making the left turn when oncoming traffic is stopped. Many drivers get nervous when they seem trapped in the intersection for a long time. Every policeman will tell you the same thing: Hold your ground until oncoming traffic clears or stops. When you can see clearly, make the turn.
  • Turning left at a multilane intersection is a whole different situation. Visibility is a prime concern when turning across several lanes of traffic. It is acceptable to hesitate at each lane, if visibility is blocked by stopped oncoming traffic. There is always a chance that a driver will run a red light in a curb side lane. If you cannot see, you should not go.
  • Always think of protecting the passengers when making a left turn at an intersection. Vehicles are designed to absorb crashes from all directions, but much less so from a side impact. The T-bone crash is often deadly. Avoiding the left turn altogether is common practice for many professional drivers. Delivery drivers are partial to oneway streets.

Bus driving routes are specifically designed with safety in mind. In most cities, buses are given special turning lanes, which reduce the chance of a mishap. Some taxi drivers only make right turns except at a flashing green advance streetlight. Professional driving instructors will always teach the right turn first in busy traffic.

On a personal note, I try to avoid the left turn. I feel defenceless against the rear end collision every time I have to wait for oncoming traffic to clear. This is a lesson I learned from a telephone company driver years ago.

Steve Wallace is a member of the College of Teachers and the owner of Joan Wallace Driving School on Vancouver Island and the Interior of B.C.
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