Traffic

People drive crazy in center turn lanes. How far can you legally travel in one?

Q: How far are you legally allowed to drive in the center turn lane? — Randy N.

A: Randy has a nit to pick with some of his fellow motorists in the Spanaway area.

“I guess I didn’t get the memo that it’s now legal to drive in the center turn lane for a half or three-quarters of a mile before the left-turn light on Spanaway Loop Road South and Military Road South,” he wrote to us at Traffic Q&A headquarters. “During the morning commute, I’ve seen cars jump into the center turn lane at 160th Street South and roar down the center turn lane to the left-turn light at Military Road.”

While Randy’s complaint is geographically specific, we suspect other drivers across the region, including the handful of readers of this column (thanks, Kristin!), have experienced similar center-turn-lane shenanigans.

So, what does the law say? We consulted RCW 46.61.290, sveltely titled, “Required position and method of turning at intersections,” for answers.

Subsection 3(c) provides the pertinent language:

“Upon a roadway where a center lane has been provided by distinctive pavement markings for the use of vehicles turning left from either direction, no vehicles may turn left from any other lane. A vehicle shall not be driven in this center lane for the purpose of overtaking or passing another vehicle proceeding in the same direction. No vehicle may travel further than three hundred feet within the lane. (emphasis added) A signal, either electronic or manual, for indicating a left turn movement, shall be made at least one hundred feet before the actual left turn movement is made.”

Let us repeat it for those of you in the back and/or driving crazy on Spanaway Loop Road: “No vehicle may travel further than 300 feet within the lane.” For reference, that’s the length of a football field from goal line to goal line.

Anne Radford is a spokesperson for Pierce County Planning and Public Works. We mentioned Randy’s frustrations to Radford and asked about his suggestion to add “a couple of islands” in the center turn lane on Spanaway Loop Road to discourage what we’ll call long-lane drivers.

“Two-way center turn lanes are used as a safety and congestion-relief measure,” Radford told us via email. “In some locations, they may be used to extend the storage capacity of left-turn pockets during peak hours.”

As for the islands?

“We have had very few reported crashes within the center turn lane in this area,” she said. “Accordingly, we do not plan to install any obstacles within the center turn lane to enforce compliance with the law, as an island or other obstacle could generate more of an issue.

“We will pass this concern onto the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department, which enforces traffic laws in unincorporated Pierce County.”

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Adam Lynn is the local news editor and writes the Traffic Q&A column for The News Tribune. He has worked as a journalist for more than 30 years, most of it in Washington state.
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