Illegal Turns - Right, Left, U-Turns

Laws regarding illegal turns differ from state to state but most prohibit the follow:

(a) Right Turns. Both the approach for a right-hand turn and a right-hand turn shall be made as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway.

(b) Left Turns. The approach for a left turn shall be made as close as practicable to the left-hand edge of the extreme left-hand lane or portion of the roadway lawfully available to traffic moving in the direction of travel of such vehicle, and, when turning at an intersection, the left turn shall not be made before entering the intersection. After entering the intersection, the left turn shall be made so as to leave the intersection in a lane lawfully available to traffic moving in such direction upon the roadway being entered.

The term "as close as practicable" is your best friend in defending against this violation. You will want to present evidence that shows why what you did was the most "practicable" thing to do under the circumstances. These include:

  • avoiding cars parked at the curb
  • steering clear of traffic pulling out of parking spaces
  • avoiding roadside construction, and
  • avoiding pedestrians.

Prohibited U-Turns

In most states, U-turns are almost always illegal in business districts. In residence districts and other areas, they are likely to be legal except where traffic conditions make them unsafe. Because possible defenses to U-turn tickets greatly depend on where a turn was made, let's look at the most common situations.

U-turn laws vary considerably from state to state. Be sure to read the law you're charged with violating to see exactly what its elements are. Then try to figure how you can convincingly claim you didn't violate at least one of them.

U-Turn in Business District

Most state U-turn statutes say something like:

No person in a business district shall make a U-turn, except at an intersection or on a divided highway where an opening has been provided.

In most states it is usually legal to make a 
U-turn unless you are in a business or residential district (see below) or a sign prohibits it. A "business district" is typically defined as a place where more than 50% of the property fronting the street is "in use for business" along a specified length, often defined as several hundred feet and often longer. Even in a business district, it usually is legal to make a U-turn at a stoplight as long as you begin your turn in the far-left lane.

Your best defense to a charge that you made a U-turn in a business district is usually that you weren't, in fact, in such a district. Typically, this involves two steps: First, looking up your state's definition of the term business district and then going back to the scene of your turn to see if the location meets your state's technical definition.

The officer must prove you were in a business district. Because making a U-turn in a business district is a key element of the offense you are charged with, it should be up to the officer to prove it. It follows if the officer provides no proof, you should win your case. Often it's best not to bring up this point until after the prosecution has finished presenting evidence, because you do not want to tip off the other side to your strategy. Instead, this point should be made in your direct testimony and closing argument.

U-Turn in Residence District

Most state laws read something like this:

No person in a residence district shall make a U-turn when any other vehicle is approaching from either direction within 200 feet, except at an intersection when the approaching vehicle is controlled by an official traffic-control device.

To be convicted of this, the prosecution must prove that you did all of the following things (violated all of these legal elements):

  • You were driving in a "residence district," which is usually defined elsewhere in your state laws or code.
  • You made a full 180-degree or U-turn.
  • Another vehicle was approaching (not merely stopped) within the distance specified by the law.
  • You were at an intersection not controlled by an "official traffic-control device" (sign or signal).

The Poor Person's U-Turn Is Okay

Dividing your U-turn into several parts makes it legal. It is legal if you turn into a driveway or parking lot, make a full stop, then back out into traffic to complete the U-turn. Think of it this way: The left turn into a driveway is legal. Backing out of the driveway is legal, as long as you stay to the shoulder of the road, stop, activate your left turn signal, and enter traffic when safe to do so. And best of all, it's a way to make what amounts to a U-turn while keeping all those green portraits of Andrew Jackson safely in your pocket.

The best ways to beat this violation are to raise doubt as to whether another vehicle was approach ing within the distance specified in your state law or whether the area was a "residence district." To demonstrate that other vehicles were not within the specified number of feet at the time you made your turn, it often helps to use maps or drawings containing a distance scale. One way to do this is to enlarge a city map to help show the judge where your car and the other vehicle were, noting that no vehicle was within 200 feet of you. Or you can draw your own map, carefully indicating the distances.

Or, you can use pictures of the street when no other traffic is present on it. That way you can mark, on the photograph, with felt-tipped or ballpoint pen, the spots where the other vehicles were. You can testify that you went back to the scene and measured the distances from where your car was to those points when you started the U-turn.

If your state law sets a more relaxed U-turn standard in rural or other nonresidential areas, you may want to try to show there weren't enough residences within the area for it to be a residence district. But be careful not to open up the possibility that you turned in a business district, which will almost always have even tighter U-turn rules.

U-Turns on the Highway (Not in Residence, Business, or Other Restricted Districts)

The law usually reads like this:

No person shall make a U-turn upon any highway where the driver of such vehicle does not have an unobstructed view for 200 feet in both directions along the highway.

This law applies to areas of any highway that are not labeled a "residence," "business," or other specified district. Here you are free to make a legal U-turn, provided you have an unobstructed view for the number of feet specified in your state law. It doesn't matter whether other vehicles are approaching within that distance, so long as you can see them clearly and it's safe to make the turn. You can often use maps, diagrams, or pictures to demonstrate that you could see more than the distance specified by law.

U-Turns Across a Traffic Island

A "divided highway" is often a road with a traffic island or other physical barrier in the middle, separating the two directions of traffic. It's obviously against the law to make a U-turn over a physical barrier. Because it is very dangerous and potentially damaging to the vehicle, few sober drivers attempt it. However, a divided highway can also be designated by a "painted traffic island" consisting of two sets of double yellow lines at least two feet apart. And it's far more common for drivers to cross this type of artificial barrier.

A typical state law reads as follows:

Whenever a highway has been divided into two or more roadways by means of intermittent barriers or by means of a dividing section of not less than two feet in width, either unpaved or delineated by curbs, double-parallel lines, or other markings on the roadway, it is unlawful to drive any vehicle over, upon, or across the dividing section, or to make any left or U-turn except through a plainly marked opening in the dividing section.

In other words, you can't legally cross two pairs of double white or yellow lines two or more feet apart or a highway divider strip, except at an opening or a place where the double-double lines drop to one set of double lines (or, in some states, become intermittent).

Your best defenses:

  • The two sets of parallel lines were less than two feet apart. At your trial you can challenge the officer to say whether he or she measured the distance between the lines or just estimated them. Although technically this is a decent defense, most judges probably won't go for it (they will assume the two sets of lines were the correct distance apart) unless you measure them and prove they were not. Since people who paint highways aren't perfect, it can pay to wait until traffic is light and get out the old measuring tape.
  • There appeared to be a break in the double-double lines to accommodate a driveway. Pictures help a lot with this one, although sometimes you can challenge an officer on cross-examination to get the officer to admit that he or she can't remember. If so, when it comes to your turn to testify, you'll want to claim that the officer's inability to remember raises a reasonable doubt as to your guilt.
  • You were forced to divert over a set of double lines to avoid a dangerous traffic situation. The burden of proving any "emergency defense" is squarely on you. Be sure your emergency really relates to road conditions (you had to avoid an out-of- control truck) and not just your personal situation (you needed to stop to adjust your seatbelt).

Unsafe Turns and Lane Changes

In addition to the specific turn laws outlined above, most states also have a catchall category called "unsafe turns or lane changes." Here is a typical statute.

No person shall turn a vehicle from a direct course or move right or left upon a roadway until such movement can be made with reasonable safety and then only after the giving of an appropriate signal in the event any other vehicle may be affected by the movement.

In theory, at least, it is up to the prose cution to prove facts that, taken together, demonstrate that you were not driving safely. But in a real courtroom, the ticketing officer will probably just testify that your actions were dangerous. Although this is a conclusion—not really proof—it is usually enough to shift the burden of proof to you. (The judge will now expect you to show your actions were safe.) It is, therefore, important for you to be prepared to produce evidence that this was the case. Following are some suggestions on how to do this.

Turning Left Against Oncoming Traffic

It is legal to make a left turn in front of oncoming traffic if you can do so with reasonable safety. If ticketed, you can start by testifying that, because your turn did not cause an accident and the other driver did not have to swerve or brake sharply, your turn was safe. In addition, you may wish to point out that there was enough distance between your car and an oncoming car to make the turn safely. One good approach is to use a little mathematics to show the judge how much time you had to make your turn. Start by understanding that six car-lengths equals about 100 feet. Assuming the car approaching yours was traveling at 25 mph (or 37 feet per second), you would have about three seconds for you to make your turn. Twelve car lengths (or 200 feet) would allow about six seconds, and so on. You should explain that with the help of a diagram as part of your direct testimony and reiterate it in your closing argument.

Testify if the other driver signaled you to proceed. If the reason you made your illegal turn was because another driver signaled you to go first, you should testify that the other driver nodded or otherwise told you to go ahead with the turn.

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