Steve Wallace: Left turns more dangerous than you think

The left-turn manoeuvre is commonly referred to as the most dangerous directional change a driver will ever attempt.

There are several circumstances that make turning left much more difficult than turning right. Many professional drivers will avoid the left turn, in favour of three right turns, to arrive at the same destination. Experienced drivers will often design their route to and from a regularly travelled destination, or to leave and return home, by turning only right, particularly when entering and leaving busy streets.

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Suppose we tried to explain the left turn to someone from another planet. It would sound something like this: “Now I am going to put my vehicle in a lane reserved for other vehicles of my type travelling toward me, with the distinct possibility of a fatal or near-fatal crash given an unexpected lapse of distance judgment by the oncoming driver or myself.” It is sometimes very sobering to see ourselves as others might see us.

The hazards of turning left at an intersection are predictable. If this is so, why do 60 per cent of crashes occur at intersections? The anatomy of a left-turn crash can be explained.

Most drivers believe they can do their driving manoeuvres much quicker than is prudently possible. Ask any driver: How many seconds does it take to do an unobstructed left turn at a standard intersection? Depending on the width of the intersection, it will take anywhere from seven to 10 seconds. The timing of the total turn length is from the moment the vehicle moves into the intersection, until the steering wheel has returned to the straight position.

This is an exercise most student drivers are asked to perform. Their average estimate of the time allowance is about three or four seconds. When the average driver is asked to estimate the same time frame, the result is an estimate which is too low. When drivers are doing any manoeuvre, estimated time does seem to be misjudged in a downward direction. Many drivers do not allow enough time to properly execute a left turn.

There are all sorts of objects and people to observe while preparing for and making a left turn in front of oncoming traffic. Beware pedestrians crossing in one's intended direction of travel. More importantly, use this simple rule: If you cannot see, you cannot go. Many drivers, attempting a left turn at a multi-lane intersection, will bolt through a perceived gap only to be hit by a vehicle in an outside lane, running the red light. When large vehicles are present in this situation, neither driver can see the other until it is too late. Sadly, when such a crash happens, innocent passengers are the ones taking the full force of impact.

Drivers are permitted to stay in the middle of an intersection regardless of the colour of the traffic light, while traffic clears, before having to clear such an intersection. Once a driver has proceeded into the intersection, that driver owns the intersection, until it is safe to leave it. Many drivers mistakenly hang back and do not occupy the intersection, preferring to sit on the crosswalk and bolt once the amber light appears. This is a recipe for disaster. Quick actions beget quick crashes.

Traffic engineers have tried to lessen the danger for left turners. They have installed left-turn advance lights and indent lanes, clearing many vehicles at a time. The left-turn cheaters are still a problem at many of these intersections.

The roundabout is another worthy traffic option designed to eliminate both the T-bone and the oncoming-left-turn crash. Roundabout configurations have 50 per cent fewer crashes than regular intersections.

Steve Wallace is the owner of Wallace Driving School on Vancouver Island. He is a former vice-president of the Driving Schools Association of the Americas, a registered B.C. teacher and a University of Manitoba graduate.

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