Road Rules: Signaling without turning


Question: When coming up behind someone who is signaling to turn left (into a driveway or at an uncontrolled intersection) and stopped waiting for cross traffic to clear, I turn on my left turn signal as well, even though I won’t be turning. When the other car turns, I turn off my signal and go on my way. My husband thinks this is crazy. I think it helps alert people behind me to what is happening ahead of us. I thought I was taught to do this when I learned to drive. Did I just make this up?

Answer: This is a first. I’ve had so many conversations about people turning and not using their turn signal. I’ve never had someone ask about using their turn signal and then not turning. 

I did my best to find some official driver education that supported your method (just to keep your husband from calling you crazy) but I came up empty-handed. We’ve never met, so I’m in no position to make a psychological diagnosis; I’ll leave that up to your husband. However, people have pushed crazier ideas, like the uncle that told her niece it was okay to drive the wrong way down a one-way street, as long as it was only for one block. (It’s not.) Maybe you also have an uncle who gave you some well-meaning but not great advice. 

You won’t find anything in the law that suggests drivers should attempt to communicate the movements of other vehicles. But I can’t find anything that states it’s illegal. Even so, “legal” is not the same as “good idea.” There’s no law against transporting a gallon of house paint without a lid in your passenger seat, but at your first hard brake you’ll regret it.

And while it may be legal, it at the least appears inconsistent with the intent of the law. The law that requires drivers to use turn signals when turning also states that turn signals “shall not be flashed on one side only on a disabled vehicle, … nor be flashed on one side only of a parked vehicle …” Those scenarios are a bit different from your situation, in that they could mislead another driver to believe that the vehicle with its signal on intends to pull into traffic, but there’s an underlying premise that your signal shouldn’t misrepresent your intention. 

The law requires drivers to signal their plans, and we’ve come to expect that a driver’s signals represent their own actions. I appreciate your desire to help other drivers, but your brake lights should be sufficient to let the driver behind you know that something is going on up ahead. By signaling you may also be inadvertently creating a hazard. If the driver behind you sees that the two cars in front of them are turning left, they may decide to pass on the right, which can be legal in some situations. If you then cancel your signal and go straight, you could end up in a collision as the driver pulls back into what they expected to be an open lane, or you may run the other driver off the road. 

We have a limited number of tools to communicate with each other on the road. It’s universally agreed that the turn signal means, “I’m planning on turning.” If you give it another meaning, you leave other drivers guessing. Someday our cars may be smart enough to talk to each other and share what’s happening up ahead. Until then, I’d stick with the commonly understood meaning of the turn signal.

Doug Dahl is a manager with the Washington Traffic Safety Commission, Region 11 and publishes


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