Left turns in Los Angeles
February 19, 2005 10:08 PM   Subscribe

When did Los Angeles drivers begin to consistently make illegal left turns, against a red light? In LA last week, my wife and I noticed that the last two or three cars making a left turn at an intersection did so even though the green arrow had stopped showing. And are there other places besides Southern California where these (belated, illegal, dangerous) turns happen regularly? [A bit more inside]

I'm guessing that traffic has gotten so bad in the Los Angeles area that people making left turns feel entitled to go through a red light (following the last legal car, one that had a green left turn arrow). Of course, that means that when the light turns green for cars coming from another direction, they have to wait until the intersection is clear of the illegally turning cars. My wife and I were astonished at this - we've driven in dozens of cities in the US in the last decade and never seen anything like this - the illegal left turns occurred virtually every time that there were more cars waiting to make a left turn than could go through the light on the green arrow. How long has this been going on? And are there other cities (in the US) where this now also happens consistently?
posted by WestCoaster to Travel & Transportation around Los Angeles, LA (36 answers total)
It's not a west coast only thing. I see it all the time in the Chicago area. Probably happens anywhere there is lots of traffic and impatient people.
posted by AstroGuy at 10:21 PM on February 19, 2005

If you are already in the intersection when the light turns yellow, it is not legally running the red light in the CA vehicle code. But that is not exactly what you have described and the real reason people do it is because the drivers are ungodly horrible in California.

In particular with regard to the turning, I am to understand from a friend who had moved to LA 15 years ago, that's just how they do it here.

On preview, AstroGuy, you may not understand how horrible and irritating this practice is - You can miss your entire green arrow waiting for another arrow's traffic to clear.
posted by mzurer at 10:27 PM on February 19, 2005

I'm surprised you've never noticed this before. In the past decade I've lived in San Francisco, Boston, Seattle, and Philadelphia, and seen this done in all the cities.

I think it has more to do with traffic density than anything else. Some intersections have impossibly short windows for left turns, and after a saturation point is reached people just start trying to squeeze themselves in after the light has turned. I can think of several intersections in different cities where it was not uncommon to have to wait 3 or 4 cycles simply to get through the intersection, which led to enough communal frustration that drivers started "running" red lights on left turns.
posted by googly at 10:35 PM on February 19, 2005

This is nothing unusual in any big city.

It could be slightly more prevalent in SoCal simply because it can take a _really_ long time for the green arrow to come your way again at some intersections.

Honestly though, having commuted in SoCal for 2 years, I didn't notice it happening any more frequently than it does anywhere else.
posted by madajb at 10:43 PM on February 19, 2005

What googly said -- it's traffic density, and I've seen it get worse and worse in every city I've been in for the past 5 years or so. In fact, when I went back to Chicago in October, I couldn't believe how much worse the traffic and driving was in comparison to L.A.!

As for L.A. in particular, I think it's exacerbated at certain intersections that don't have left-turn arrows for all 4 directions of traffic. I can think of several that are equally busy in all directions, and yet only the north-south ones (for example) will have arrows -- or weirder yet, intersections where 3 directions get an arrow, and one doesn't! (I'm pretty sure the intersection of Fairfax and 3rd, at the SW corner of Farmer's Market, has 3 left-turn arrows instead of the wildly obvious 4.)
posted by scody at 10:44 PM on February 19, 2005

Actually, I believe under California traffic laws, if the car waiting to turn is at least part of the way in the intersection when the light goes red, it isn't illegal for it to complete the turn. Of course, if it's not in the intersection yet at all, that's another matter.

As for the motivation, I think it's simple impatience as well. It's more understandable when there's no left-turn arrow, because at some intersections the traffic is so heavy that left-turns would be impossible without turning right after the light turned red. There's less of an excuse when there is a left-turn arrow, but often either the left-turn lane is not long enough or the left-turn arrow is short enough that people have to wait several light cycles before they get to the intersection and so undoubtedly feel entitled to bend the rules to make a turn after the red light.

This doesn't occur only in LA. Most of the places I've witnessed it happening in are places with heavy traffic, and it seems to be accepted as standard practice by everyone, including the police.

By the way, one of my biggest traffic pet peeves is the proliferation of red left-turn arrows (as opposed to only having green left-turn arrows) in Southern California. At most intersections, there's no need for one. As long as a car yields to on-coming traffic, I don't see any reason why it shouldn't be allowed to make a left turn when the main light is green. If there is a reason, please let me know.
posted by EatenByAGrue at 10:48 PM on February 19, 2005 [1 favorite]

Er, by my last paragraph, I meant I don't see any reason absent the imposition of a red left-turn arrow, if one exists. In many other cities, they only have a green left-turn arrow, then no arrow at all.
posted by EatenByAGrue at 10:51 PM on February 19, 2005

In Long Island, NY, way back in the 80's, it was the usual custom that the first car (or sometimes 2) through the intersection were those turning left, simply because they were the quickest. In NYC, one hear's drivers (especially taxi drivers, no surprise) discussing how a light wasn't "red" but "newly red", and that made a difference to them.

All this so strongly supports my notions that _cities_ should not have private cars running around their streets, but viable public transportation throughout, and secure parking structures around the perimeter. This would bring major enhancement to the quality of life in cities: less pollution and noise both. And good public transit means no more drunk drivers, just happy people taking public transit home after a good night out.
posted by Goofyy at 11:29 PM on February 19, 2005

I've seen it happen a lot in downtown Atlanta. And it pisses me off that the laws against it aren't enforced unless you cause a wreck or kill someone.
posted by Vidiot at 11:34 PM on February 19, 2005

In the early nineties, someone told me that in Houston, after the light has turned red, three or four more cars will go through the light.
posted by Clay201 at 11:47 PM on February 19, 2005

As EatenByAGrue alludes, unless there is a red arrow, left turns are legal as long as the main light is green. However, once the green arrow turns off, cars turning left must yield
posted by Nothing at 12:29 AM on February 20, 2005

Drivers do this at a number intersections in the Northern Virginia/DC area.

If you have a left turn lane but no arrows, you pull into the middle of the intersection and wait for a safe spot to turn. The car behind you pulls up as far as it can, and the car behind it at least sticks its nose into the intersection. When the light turns red, obviously these cars have to clear the intersection, by finishing their turns.

The Fairfax County roads department has come to expect this, and at some busy interections gives drivers 5 to 10 seconds before the lights turn greeen in the othe rdirection, so those turns can be completed.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 12:56 AM on February 20, 2005

once the green arrow turns off, cars turning left must yield
And that means do not enter the intersection when there's opposing traffic. Because you entered the intersection when you shouldn't does not then make it OK to turn after the light is red; you should not be there in the first place.

And yes, this is a traffic-density problem. Some intersections are near-impossible to turn left at. It can only get worse. In the long run, adding more (or longer) left-turn arrows only legthens the time everybody else has to wait, frustrating them more.

Oh, and get outta the way, ya slug!
posted by Kirth Gerson at 1:07 AM on February 20, 2005

I've lived in L.A. and surrounding areas for a total of about 9 years now, and this has happened for the entire time I've lived here. That said, in L.A. county in particular, there are far too many intersections that have heavy traffic but are without left turn arrows whatsoever. This leads to two or three cars edging into the intersection as the rest of the traffic goes by, and those cars all have to clear the intersection as the light turns yellow and then red. Honestly, I'd prefer having the arrows there even if they turned red, as it would pretty much eliminate this problem.
posted by bedhead at 1:07 AM on February 20, 2005

Not just a west coast phenomenon, we see this all the time in/near Philadelphia.

We also have the other (opposite?) left turn maneuver, which is to watch the light for the cross street and wait for it to turn yellow. Then just as it goes green turn left across the intersection or at least be in it before the opposing traffic starts. I'm a pretty mellow driver, but his one always makes me want to t-bone them.
posted by fixedgear at 2:26 AM on February 20, 2005

Not even an American phenomenon, this thing happens all the time in Toronto, and I'm probably guilty of it, too. Happens in any city where there's tons of traffic.
posted by Big Fat Tycoon at 4:18 AM on February 20, 2005

i see this all the time, even in smaller towns ... but one thing that contributes to it is the habit people have of going through red lights when they're going straight ... every time someone does this when the light's just turned red, it holds up the people in the intersection waiting to turn left a few seconds more
posted by pyramid termite at 6:01 AM on February 20, 2005

"that means do not enter the intersection when there's opposing traffic."

I was taught different in my high school driver's ed class. That is, so long as the left turn is otherwise legal, get as far out into the intersection as safe when there IS opposing traffic, so you can complete the turn when the light changes.
posted by mischief at 7:35 AM on February 20, 2005

The maneuver fixedgear describes is standard in Pittsburgh. When the light first turns green, cars turning left will zip out ahead of the oncoming cars in the opposite lane to do it.

People here don't see it as illegal or annoying, either. The oncoming traffic waits for people executing a "Pittsburgh Left," and I've never heard of anyone getting arrested or warned for it. The first car in the left turn lane just gets de facto right of way when the light changes. It's very civilized, but -- like the link author points out -- it wouldn't work in a city with higher blood pressure.
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:54 AM on February 20, 2005

Note that in Chicago, esp. on the North Side, this is not only common, it is basically the only way to turn left. The streets are, in comparison to modern suburban streets, very narrow, there is hardly a left turn lane, and there are hardly any protected left turns -- no room for the turn lanes.

So: the procedure for the Chicago Left.

When the light turns in, you pull into the intersection about one third of the way, leaving way on you right to allow those going straight to clear (and not cutting off those coming across the intersection from the other side.) From the other side, you'll note another car joining you in the middle. You inevitably wait, because there will be enough traffic coming through the intersection.

The light then turns yellow. If you are going straight, you *stop*. Chicagoans respect this, because, well, someday, they'll have to turn left. Now, on the yellow, the two cars in the intersection, plus one car following each, complete left turns. At this time, the light is now red, the other direction has the green, the left turning cars are clear and the cycle repeats.

Chicago cops will not bother you one bit for doing this in the above case -- no protected left, narrow streets. They will give you grief if you try it on a protected left, since you don't need to squeeze through. But without the "Chicago Left", you'd never make a left turn north of North Ave.

The lights are timed to work with this. Cycle times are short, yellows are middling long. In the burbs, with protected lefts and highway-like lanes (Christ, I think Golf has more lanes than the Tristate), the light cycles are incredibly long, and pulling halfway into a left will get you killed, but that's okay, everywhere has protected lefts (and idiots who follow trucks, can't see the lights, and get slammed when they think the left is protected, but the light has changed, but that's another opera.)

Note that in four states, including Michigan, it is legal to make a left onto a two-way street, if there is no traffic. IOW, in the absence of traffic, all red lights become stop signs. In more states, a left onto a one-way street is legal, in even more, it's legal if both streets are one way.

Obviously, Your State Does Vary. Read the rules. In St. Louis, the favorite trick is the "Left on Left Arrow Only" sign, and they do ticket for it.
posted by eriko at 8:00 AM on February 20, 2005

"I've seen it happen a lot in downtown Atlanta."

I have seen a lot of stupid traffic tricks in downtown Atlanta, but when the worst offenders are the cops themselves, what else can one expect?

I believe one reason why so many continue making left turns after the arrow goes red is that traffic heading in the other direction is stopped and must get a green, therefore they believe accidents are unlikely.
posted by mischief at 8:08 AM on February 20, 2005

This happens all the time in the Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas area. Drivers just don't have the patience to wait through another traffic light cycle. I always speculated that this activity is yet another result of the American Fast Food lifestyle. The police throughout several municipalities have installed cameras on traffic light controlled intersections. Hopefully they're using them to ticket people engaging in this activity.

If it means anything to you, I rarely see drivers running lights just after they turn red in smaller non-suburban towns.
posted by sublivious at 8:22 AM on February 20, 2005

Goofyy: When I was on Long Island in the mid-90s, I formed the hypothesis that Long Islander's vision is more in the infrared than in the visual. So when the light changes, the green bulb is still warm, and so that's what they go by. This is consistent with "newly red," I think.

In Seattle, where in the 80s the crosswalk used to be sacred ground, and pedestrians the Brahmin of the transportation caste system, drivers have gotten much, much worse. The dominant offenders are, of course, ICVs (inadequacy compensation vehicles) like SUVs, Big-Ass Trucks, and ricers. I am still primarily a pedestrian, and I have nearly been clobbered by late left turners. I mean a car coming by on two wheels that not only blew my hair back, but left me with a metallic taste in my mouth for days afterward.

The cynics among us blame all this on transplanted Californians.

Since Washington state is big on citizens initiatives (especially for repealing all automotive-related taxes that pay for, you know, road maintenance and stuff), I thought of trying to float an initiative that would absolve pedestrians of ANY damage to a vehicle that occurred while the vehicle shared a crosswalk with a pedestrian. Then start carrying a baseball bat.
posted by jimfl at 8:27 AM on February 20, 2005

In British Columbia, the law is thus:

Flashing green arrow indicates left-turn priority: opposing traffic is red-lighted, so you can go execute the turn without concern.

When the flashing green arrow goes black and the thru-traffic gets the green, you are expected to fully enter the intersection and take the turn when safe to do so. Stopping behind the line and waiting for traffic to clear is not the correct form, though it is not illegal.

Further, drivers are expected to get up on the ass of the car in front of them, so that as many vehicles as possible can clear that turn. At the same time, our public insurance provider has issues with follow-too-close accidents. The law and the insurance company are at odds on this.

When the thru-traffic light goes yellow, those vehicles in the intersection, ie. with front tires past the stop line must clear the intersection. It is, in fact, illegal to remain beyond the line, though I suspect the law is never enforced.

Down on the lower mainland ("Vancouver") the intersections and lights are actually designed for this behaviour. Those people who hang out behind the line waiting for a break in the traffic are actually fuxx0ring the system.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:11 AM on February 20, 2005

mischief, there's a cop here in town who would not appreciate your drivers' ed instructions. He spends an hour every morning standing by the local problematic intersection. If you drive into the intersection after the arrow goes out, he's going to whistle you over to the curb and hassle you. My assumption is that he knows the law.

There's nothing to prevent you making your turn from the stop line after the opposing traffic clears, is there? Other than maybe the fact that the light is now red?
posted by Kirth Gerson at 9:49 AM on February 20, 2005

Kirth, does that particular intersection include a left-turn red light that burns after the green arrow goes out? If so, then entering the intersection is illegal. Otherwise, entering an intersection on a green light, even to turn left with oncoming traffic, is legal.

He can hassle me if he wants, but I'll just laugh at him after I leave our little discussion. ;-P
posted by mischief at 9:57 AM on February 20, 2005

On preview, AstroGuy, you may not understand how horrible and irritating this practice is - You can miss your entire green arrow waiting for another arrow's traffic to clear.

I don't believe I made any comment on whether this was horrible and irritating or not. Just that it happens. I've been driving in a high-traffic region for nearly 25 years. Believe me, I know how irritating things can be.
posted by AstroGuy at 11:17 AM on February 20, 2005

mischief, no red arrow, but there's a sign saying, "Left turns yield on green light." Perhaps you are a lawyer who knows the Mass vehicle code better than the local police. I certainly don't. And if I was in enough of a hurry that I tempted fate by transgressing in front of that cop, I doubt I'd be laughing after he delayed me for twenty minutes or so.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 12:52 PM on February 20, 2005

Mass? I was talking about Atlanta. Still, with all the other states where entering the intersection is not only legal but encouraged, that cop must be plenty busy with out-of-towners.

Also, "Left turns yield on green" is not the same as "Left turns stay behind line until traffic clears."
posted by mischief at 1:04 PM on February 20, 2005

If you are already in the intersection when the light turns yellow, it is not legally running the red light in the CA
vehicle code.

True. Or just as croutonsupafreak said. But this is
different from cars rolling into the interesction after
the light's turned yellow, or even red, which is the
complaint being addressed here.

I'd see it often, living in downtown DC in the 80s,
and when I moved to LA was pleasantly surprised
at how much less people there did it. But things are
worse all over now, as scody says, because
of density.

So long as the left turn is otherwise legal, get as far
out into the intersection as safe when there IS
opposing traffic, so you can complete the turn when
the light changes.

What mischief says is exactly right. It's how I've been taught in CA Traffic School. People are fuzzing the issue, bringing up left arrows.

And drivers having trouble making left turns in the allotted
time, try driving around the block -- three right turns, instead -- less stress.
posted by Rash at 1:26 PM on February 20, 2005

Where I live, if you waited until the lane was clear to pull out on a left turn, every driver behind you would kindly forget to take their hand off the horn. Not being allowed to pull out to allow the yellow light turn would essentially make left turns in some areas nearly impossible.
posted by drezdn at 1:31 PM on February 20, 2005

Another former Los Angeles resident here. What Rash and others say is true. Be as astonished as you like; people (in California) finishing their left turns after the light turns red ar not breaking the law (unless signs indicate otherwise).

And what drezdn says is true in L.A. If you are the first car waiting to make a left turn, and you wait until the oncoming traffic clears to advance into the intersection, then you are an ignoramus, and depending on the part of the city and the time of day, you may be sitting there waiting for hours.

On a related note, in Kansas City, Missouri there is an intersection with a sign that directly instructs left-turning drivers to advance into the intersection on the green light, and then finish the turn on the red light.
posted by bingo at 1:57 PM on February 20, 2005

If you're trying to find out "when" this started, I clearly remember it as being commonplace when we got there in 1984, so it would have started before that.

I'm partial to the "New York left" (as I've heard it called, although it's called a Pittsburgh left above). This involves jumping the light to make a left-hand turn before the oncoming traffic has a chance to get started. It is in no way compatible with the late turners in L.A., though, since you can't get started early if the other guys are finishing late.

On preview: The late turns on left arrows are, in my experience, far more blatant and prevalent in L.A. than they are in D/FW area... at least the Fort Worth side. Yeah, it happens, but one, maybe two cars (as opposed to several in L.A.).
posted by Doohickie at 7:31 PM on February 20, 2005

The city of LA has not made it a priority to install left turn signals at its major intersections. It's that simple.
posted by calwatch at 2:09 AM on February 21, 2005

I have noticed this in DC lately and it pisses me off. It usually happens at the convergence of two one-way streets. The scariest thing is the driver's making the illegal turn only look in the direction of on-coming traffic and therefore come very close to hitting people in the intersection.

When I mentioned this to a friend, she said she was in the car with a friend of hers from NYC when the woman got pulled over for doing this. The woman's excuse to the cop was "but it is legal in NY." Don't know if that is true or if this person was simply incapable of taking responsibility for her own actions (a possibility her friend suggested, not me).

This trend sucks. Cities are already becoming less and less ped-friendly, so I hope this stops soon.
posted by terrapin at 5:07 AM on February 21, 2005

Well, mischief, I didn't say it was a universal law, only that that's what would happen here.

As to California, I remember being impressed that pedestrians had absolute right of way. You stepped off the curb, and all the cars stopped. That was long ago.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 5:25 AM on February 21, 2005

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