Road Rules 101: Center turn lanes

Wednesday, May 1, 2019by  PEMCO Insurance

GettyImages-1040217088.jpgWhen turning left from a side street onto a busy roadway, can you pull into the roadway's center turn lane and stop, waiting for traffic to clear before merging right to complete the turn? (Customer question from Linette J.)

While Oregon's law is written more clearly than Washington's, this left-turn maneuver does appear to be legal in both states (see excerpts below). But perhaps the bigger question is, "Should you do it?"

On that point, safety experts are clear. Left turns are 10 times more likely to end in an accident than right turns. The difference is so dramatic that United Parcel Service (UPS) trains drivers to avoid left turns whenever reasonable and estimates that, at least in busy commercial areas, UPS trucks turn right 90% of the time. (It's a different story in sleepier residential areas with meandering streets that give few options to turning left.)

You might think looping the block (making only right turns) might waste time and gas, but the big brown delivery giant seems to think that's offset by eliminating long periods of idling as drivers wait for busy traffic to clear so they can turn left.

Here's how the law spells it out (the bold emphasis is ours):

Washington RCW 46.61.290:
(3) Two-way left turn lanes.

  1. The department of transportation and local authorities in their respective jurisdictions may designate a two-way left turn lane on a roadway. A two-way left turn lane is near the center of the roadway set aside for use by vehicles making left turns in either direction from or into the roadway

Oregon ORS 811.346:

A person who turns into a special left turn lane from an alley, driveway or other entrance to the highway that has the special left turn lane is in violation of this section if the person does anything other than stop in the lane and merge into traffic in the lane immediately to the right of the person's vehicle.

In both states, it's illegal to drive in the lane to match speed with the cars in the lane you're trying to enter.  ​

NOTE: While we're experts in loss prevention and home/auto safety, we don't consider ourselves experts in traffic laws or their enforcement. Information shared here is for educational purposes only and is not legal advice. If you have legal concerns, we urge you to contact a law enforcement source or attorney in your community.

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Comments on this post

personJan05/14/2019 04:33 PM
I avoid the center turn lane when making a left hand turn coming onto the main road. I have less visibility for traffic coming up in the right hand lane from a parallel position.  Is that okay to wait for a break in the traffic and turn directly into that right hand lane of traffic rather than go to the center turn lane, stop and then move to the right?
personLarrys05/02/2019 07:53 AM
I really like Pemco's articles. I have been informed and modified my driving to better conform to the conventions, if not the rules of road. If we (all drivers) are more consistent, all of us are safer, but just as important, we use the scarce road resource more efficiently.
personMark Doss05/01/2019 10:35 PM
CY said it perfectly!
personWarren Hartz05/01/2019 06:54 PM
Here in the Skykomish valley on highway 2 people call that the "Suicide Lane".  There have been a couple of collisions in Startup from people illegally passing in that lane and hitting someone turning left head on.
When traffic is heavy, it can take 5 minutes or so to get a break going both directions to be able to turn left onto highway 2.  So we have sometimes cautiously turned into that middle lane, waited for an opening, and merged, when visibility was good.
But one time my wife turned left into that lane and a police car with his lights flashing was coming down that middle lane straight toward her at a high rate of speed.  Fortunately, everyone had pulled onto the shoulder, so she was able to quickly pull right out of his way.
Someone could also be pulling into that lane to turn left off the highway at the same time you're turning left onto the highway.  So it may be legal, but not recommended.
personWarren Brown05/01/2019 04:50 PM
If it's the only center turn lane you could cause an accident if oncoming traffic can use that lane too.
It seem like a dumb idea to me.  If it is a left turn pocket going in your direction you should only be in that lane if you are turning left and in Washington if you enter the pocket before the lane line ends you could get a ticket.
personCY05/01/2019 03:44 PM
Re: Should you do it? Most of the time, when a car is pulling out of a side street into the center lane to stop and then merge into the lane I'm traveling in, my initial reaction is to think that car is going to either cut me off or run into me. So although I realize it's legal and sometimes needs to be done, if you have to do it, be aware that you're probably scaring the drivers you're pulling up alongside.

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