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Do you have to always use your turn signal when making a left turn in Washington?

Posted by Brian C. Zuanich | Jun 03, 2019 | 0 Comments

If you're turning left from a dedicated left turn lane, do you really need to activate your turn signal?

Second question. If you have ever thought about this question, have you ever considered writing a 17 page legal opinion about it.  Probably not.

But that's what the Court of Appeals did in State v. Brown, a case decided earlier this year.

Brown was driving eastbound on Clearwater Avenue in Kennewick at 10:15 pm, approaching the intersection of Clearwater and Highway 395. Brown, traveling in the center lane, wanted to turn left onto Highway 395 so he activated his turn signal, moved left into the left-hand turn lane, at which point his turn signal flipped off. The traffic light was red so he stopped. There was no other traffic or pedestrians in the area.

No issues at this point. The left-hand arrow turned green. Brown turned left. But he didn't flip his turn signal back on. That's when the police officer stopped him.

Brown was eventually arrested charged with DUI. At a motion hearing, a district court judge ruled that the officer had the legal authority to stop Brown's car. Brown appealed.

In Washington, you can find a traffic law that governs almost every conceivable type of traffic movement, and turning left is no exception.

RCW 46.61.305 sets forth the law for turning left and using turn signals. The statute has two subsections.

Subsection (1) says that you can't turn left unless you give an “appropriate signal in the manner hereinafter provided” andyou can't turn left unless you do it safely.

Subsection (2) says that the use of a turn signal “when required” has to be done “continuously” for at least 100 feet before turning. 

People hate lawyers because we use words like “hereinafter” and write statues like this.

What does “hereinafter provided” mean?

On appeal, the State argued as follows: You have to use a turn signal in the manner “hereinafter provided,” which means the manner described in subsection (2) of the statue, which means that you can't turn left unless you've had your turn signal on for at least 100 feet.

No, Brown countered. He was in the dedicated left turn lane. Clearly, the officer knew what he was going to do. And there was no in the area. He made a safe left hand turn under the circumstances.

The Court sided with Brown. To say the Court analyzed the issue to death would be an understatement. The judges looked at similar statutes in Alabama, Georgia, and Texas, and reviewed the history of the statute from the 1960s to present day. Plus the Court sliced and diced each part of the statute.

The Court's ruling had three main parts.

First, the words “when required” in the statute have to mean something, or else the state legislature wouldn't have kept them in the law for the past 50 years. So the legislature's decision to keep these words “suggests some circumstances exist during which a turn signal is not required.”

Second, continuous use of a turn signal for 100 feet may not be practical, as most drivers will understand. Take the situation that Brown confronted. You activate your turn signal, then move from the center lane to the left hand. You straighten out your vehicle, at which point the self-cancelling feature on your wheel's turn lever kicks in and the blinker stops. So you need to re-activate the signal again.

Of course, if you're already stopped at the left turn light, then it is physically impossible to signal for at least 100 feet before the turn—because you're already there.   

Third, the whole point of the law is to ensure public safety. You're supposed to use a signal to notify other drivers and nearby pedestrians what you're doing. But if there's no one to warn, then there's really no need to activate your turn signal.

Put another way, the “when required” in the statute means “when required for public safety.” As the Court wrote, “if a let turn can be made safely without the use of a signal, no signal is required.

About the Author

Brian C. Zuanich

I am the managing partner at Zuanich Law. I am a former prosecutor and insurance defense attorney, and have practiced law in state and federal courts for over a decade.

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