Question: At some intersections, and even some mid-block locations, I see no U-turn signs. I thought U-turns were generally illegal, especially mid-block. If that’s true, then why post no U-turn signs?
Answer: I once saw a bumper sticker that said, “God allows U-turns.” Either that’s a metaphor or God hasn’t gotten through to the lawmakers in some cities and states. Here in Washington, that bumper sticker and our state law are closely aligned, but that’s not the case in our neighbor state to the south (or some cities in our state).
If you’re an Oregonian visiting Washington, you might think we have a bunch of scofflaws making U-turns wherever we please. And if you’re a Washingtonian visiting Oregon, you might get surprised by a ticket for what you thought was a perfectly legal U-turn.
I don’t usually get into traffic laws in other states, but when a bordering state’s law doesn’t match up with Washington law, it can be helpful to be aware of both. I wonder, question asker, if maybe you learned to drive in Oregon. If so, your understanding of U-turns would make sense. In the Beaver State, U-turns are prohibited at intersections controlled by a traffic signal, between intersections within any city limits, and at any place where a vehicle can’t be seen by an approaching driver (within 500 feet in a city and 1,000 feet outside a city.)
Washington law seems lax in comparison. Here, U-turns are generally allowed as long as you can do them safely and without interfering with other traffic. The two restrictions in state law are that you can’t make a U-turn in a curve or when approaching a hill if your vehicle can’t be seen by an approaching driver within 500 feet. Historical side note: Prior to 1975, the law didn’t even include the part about making U-turns safely and without interfering with other traffic. It just prohibited them on curves and hills.
Given the few limitations in the law, you can probably imagine (or you’ve found yourself in) places where you’d never consider making a U-turn, even though the situation isn’t specifically described in the law. To address U-turn safety concerns, cities can write local laws that prohibit U-turns on specific streets, districts, or even the entirety of the city. As examples, Yakima prohibits U-turns in its business district (unless there is a designated U-turn lane) and mid-block U-turns outside a business district. Tacoma generally prohibits U-turns throughout the city unless they’re at intersections without any traffic control signs, signals, markers (which you’ll only find in very low-traffic areas), in locations where “the U-Turn is made through an opening provided for that purpose,” or at an intersection with a sign authorizing a U-turn.
In cities where the local U-turn law mostly matches the state law but has a few exceptions, you might find signs where U-turns are prohibited. In cities where they’re generally prohibited, you’re probably not going to see “No U-turn” signs everywhere, so it’s up to you to be aware of the law. It’s also unrealistic to know the various iterations of U-turn laws in every municipality across the state, so if you’re in a city where you don’t know their U-turn laws, you might want to be extra cautious. Safety is the first priority, but also the legal penalties might be more than you expect. As a final example, Bremerton’s municipal code states that U-turns are prohibited everywhere unless there is a sign allowing it, and violation of the law is a misdemeanor (a crime, yikes!) rather than a civil infraction like most traffic violations.
Doug Dahl is a manager with the Washington Traffic Safety Commission, Region 11 and publishes TheWiseDrive.com.
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