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Why Left Turn Accidents Are So Dangerous

“Is the Left Ever Right” sounds like the title of political satire. But here we are talking about the dreaded left-hand turn while driving left and when do you, the driver have absolute, if ever, autonomy to make that left. You will find that you truly do not.

Left turns are one of the most dangerous situations for drivers, and for older drivers in particular. Twenty-five percent of traffic violations result from improper left turns, and left-turn situations have some of the highest crash rates especially for older adults.

There are many types of left-turn situations. For example, there are single, double, and triple turn lanes; signalized and unsignalized left turns; and left turns out of a dedicated turn lane.

General Right- and Left-Turn Strategies

Specific Left-Turn Strategies

Maryland is no exception to the dreaded left-hand turn accident.  As Maryland’s population ages so do the number of accidents. The Motor Vehicle Administration provides the following:

Maryland Older Driver Statistics

The future of demographics on the roadway is older drivers – 

But, older drivers are not the big story on crashes –

This is how it breaks down for the crashes that are reported to be the fault of the older drivers –

Your Fault – My Fault — Who is at Fault in a Left Turn Accident?

This is where the left-hand turn really gets complicated. Nine times out of ten, the driver making the left-hand turn will be at fault no matter how right the driver may have been.

As a general premise, a vehicle that makes a left turn is nearly always found responsible for causing an auto accident with a vehicle approaching from the other direction and traveling in a straight path. It is what is called the dreaded left turn accident. Why is that?

Traffic laws of most states mandate a vehicle making a left turn must wait until it can make the complete turn safely before it enters and moves through an area of oncoming vehicle traffic.

To be deemed legally responsible or at fault for an auto accident, a driver must have been either careless and/or found to be in violation of an applicable traffic law.  

In left turn accidents, fault is almost always established automatically because traffic laws attach responsibility to the driver making a left turn to yield to traffic that is approaching and oncoming, and then to turn only when it is completely safe.

Additionally, often the site of property damage on vehicles involved in a car accident makes it challenging for a driver to maintain an accident occurred in any context aside from while making a left hand turn.

Yes, there are several notable exceptions to general default rules that attach liability to drivers making left turns that lead to eventual auto accidents. Those few exceptions can occur and negate or trump an otherwise nearly automatic attachment of accident liability, if any of the following is true:

  1. The vehicle approaching from the opposite direction in a straight path is traveling too fast and sped through a light in excess of the speed limit. Please note this is challenging to establish.
  2. The vehicle approaching from the opposite direction in a straight path drove through a red traffic light.
  3. The vehicle making the left turn started its turning maneuver when it was safe to do so and traffic was clear, but during the course of turning, some unexpected event occurred that made the car slow or stop its turning maneuver.

If you have been in an auto accident in which you hit another car making a left turn immediately in front of you, most fault considerations are irrelevant. In such cases, the other driver involved in the accident is almost always the one found to be liable.

It is also significant to note in some instances, even if you are a driver who is at fault on a partial basis for a left turn accident, you may still be able to recover some of your resulting damages.

Of course, there may be exceptions to these general rules. A personal injury attorney can best advise of governing traffic laws and prevailing court procedures in a particular jurisdiction.

Maryland Law – Left Hand Turns

So, what doe the Maryland law say? 2010 Maryland Code – Transportation, TITLE 21 – VEHICLE LAWS – RULES OF THE ROAD, Subtitle 4 – Right-of-Way

Section 21-402 – Vehicle turning left or making U-turn.

21-402. Vehicle turning left or making U-turn.

(a)  Turning left.- If the driver of a vehicle intends to turn to the left in an intersection or into an alley or a private road or driveway, the driver shall yield the right-of-way to any other vehicle that is approaching from the opposite direction and is in the intersection or so near to it as to be an immediate danger. 

(b)  U-turn.- If the driver of a vehicle intends to turn to go in the opposite direction, the driver shall yield the right-of-way to any approaching vehicle that is so near as to be an immediate danger. 

[An. Code 1957, art. 661/2, § 11-402; 1977, ch. 14, § 2.

There’s Nothing Left

All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” — Arthur Schopenhauer

Please remember that quote as you read and what will appear outlandish — a ban on left turns on heavily-trafficked roads. There’s no doubt we’re doing things today that future generations will find abhorrent. Here’s why turning left on crowded streets is one of them: 

Left turns are unsafe for everyone.

Federal data have shown that 53.1 percent of crossing-path crashes involve left turns, but only 5.7 percent involve right turns. That’s almost 10 times as many crashes involving left turns as right. 

A study by New York City’s transportation planners concluded that left-hand turns were three times as likely to cause a deadly crash involving a pedestrian as right-hand turns. And 36 percent of fatal accidents involving a motorcycle involve a left-hand turn in front of a motorcycle, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Association.

“Left turns create some concerns when it comes to generating potential for congestion, back-up traffic flow, safety, accident situations,” said Phil Caruso, the deputy executive director for technical programs at the Institute of Transportation Engineers. “So if you can eliminate left turns, especially concurrent left turns, that’s a positive.”

We could save lives by restricting left turns, but we’re unwilling to sacrifice what we see as a needed convenience. Even if you discount the safety concerns, the efficiency of turning left is questionable.

Engineers don’t like left-hand turns.

Tom Vanderbilt, author of the popular book “Traffic,” has called left turns “the bane of traffic engineers.” Solutions such as diverging diamond interchanges have been proposed. Here’s the problem with left turns, according to Vanderbilt:

It’s either a car stopped in an active traffic lane, waiting to turn; or, even worse, it’s cars in a dedicated left-turn lane that, when traffic is heavy enough, requires its own “dedicated signal phase,” lengthening the delay for through traffic as well as cross traffic.

And when traffic volumes really increase, as in the junction of two suburban arterials, multiple left-turn lanes are required, costing even more in space and money.

UPS: A case study in why left turns are rarely needed.

Ask any driver if they think they’d get to their destination faster and burn less gas if making almost no left-hand turns. Their answer will almost certainly be no.

Then consider the opinion of one of largest shipping and logistics companies in the world, which stakes millions on efficiency. UPS has chosen to minimize and sometimes eliminate left-hand turns to be more efficient. The company says the changes have helped it save millions of gallons of fuel. Whose opinion should we trust?

It’s important to note that UPS policy is not a 100 percent ban on left-hand turns. One UPS official estimated that the company’s trucks turn right 90 percent of the time. If in a residential area where traffic is light, a left-hand turn is sensible. Or if a series of right-hand turns would take a driver far out of his way, a left-hand turn is efficient.

Given our country’s tradition of making left-hand turns and our fondness for personal freedoms, it’s unlikely that left-hand turns will be limited on more than the occasional basis. There may not be hope for human drivers, but perhaps the coming self-driving cars will do the right thing and never turn left.