Traffic Q&A: Lane-switching in intersections is risky, often illegal

Q: Is lane switching while making turns at intersections legal? About 80 percent of us do it, and half of us think it’s legal. It causes many accidents and scares. It would be a great new source of income for law enforcement officers.

— Doug N., Tacoma

A: This is a simple yes or no question with an easy answer — no, it isn’t legal to switch lanes in an intersection — and yet you can find worlds of confusion orbiting around it.

Why would so many drivers, as can be discerned in a five-minute observation of Tacoma’s intersection of South 19th and Alder streets at any well-trafficked hour, think the universal code of “Stay In Your Lane” is fine to ignore in this risky instance?

Let us begin with the lawmakers, who crowded RCW 46.61.290 with legalisms that might be difficult for even diligent researchers to parse.

The “required position and method of turning at intersections” section of state code runs 468 words. Here’s the sentence in there we’re looking for: “Whenever practicable, the left turn shall be made to the left of the center of the intersection and so as to leave the intersection or other location in the extreme left-hand lane lawfully available to traffic moving in the same direction as the vehicle on the roadway being entered.”

The one on turning right is a little shorter but carries the same caveat about doing it when “practicable.” You have a duty to get clear of the intersection, so if it isn’t “practicable” to be in the lane you started in, the law says you can, in fact, switch.

“If it’s filled with cars already, but it would be safe to turn into the next lane, or there’s road construction which would require you to go into the next lane, I think the law contemplates that and says that if that lane is available, you have to turn into it,” state Department of Licensing spokesman Brad Benfield said.

So switch lanes if you must, but only then, is the rule to abide by. Perhaps there just wasn’t room to put that concise phrase into the Washington Driver Guide, which could help explain the high percentage of scofflaws Doug estimated. But there’s plenty of blame for this confusion beyond Olympia, tempting though it might be to put it all on our own state government.

Perhaps some of the confusion stems from the act’s possible legality in other places.

A 2012 Oregonian story quotes our neighbor state’s driver education manager as declaring it “an urban myth” that switching lanes in an intersection there is illegal. Say what you will about them, California drivers are told it’s illegal. Michigan has a confusing law. Ohio uses similar language to Washington to say it’s illegal. A friend’s citation down in Mississippi tells us it’s definitely illegal there. Police debate this on message boards. So do Washington law enthusiasts.

So let’s add it up: a lack of legal clarity and education in Washington, and a lack of consistency in other states.

There’s something else, too, at least locally: Tacoma isn’t exactly highly regarded for the quality of its road maintenance going back over the years. It’s easy to find city intersections where the reflective white paint — it shines because of little glass beads — has worn to gray, or perhaps been consumed by a pothole. It’s challenging for even a careful driver to stay in a lane while it’s unmarked and turning across other lanes.

As they say on old cop shows, tell it to the judge. Tacoma police spokeswoman Loretta Cool says officers regard lane-switching in intersections as illegal lane travel. The ticket is $124. It goes up to $175 if it causes an accident, such as when a left-turning car invades the right lane while someone else is making a nice-and-legal right turn.

It’s not a tough law to obey. Benfield says his 15-year-old son, learning to drive, has caught on. The father’s education hasn’t stopped with the legality, though.

“One of the things that I’ve had to talk to him about is that not everybody follows the rules,” Benfield said. “There are people who will pull into the far lane right behind you and try to pass, and you have to be extra careful.”

That’s the same reason your correspondent doesn’t often try to take a right on red from Alder onto South 19th.