Column: When good deeds turn bad on the road - avoid the left-hand turn conundrum
There I was, pleasantly motoring to some morning errands. I approached the red traffic signal at the intersection. The man in the silver Lincoln was waiting in the driveway of the car wash. He had no turn signal on. Traffic backed up from the signal and I decided, as many drivers would, to stop short and let this man in the Lincoln out into traffic.
It seemed like the courteous thing to do. You have to stop anyway, so why not give the guy a break so he can pull in front of you? Everything was fine until I saw that Mr. No Turn Signal Lincoln was going to make a left turn in front of me. I knew from policing many similar accidents that this could end badly.
It did, because as Mr. No Turn Signal Lincoln passed my hood and entered the left turn lane, he did not see the blue pickup truck pulling a horse trailer that had just entered the left turn lane. The pickup truck had entered the left turn lane a little early for the intersection and plowed into the Lincoln with the dreaded quarter panel, hood and front bumper damage that spells big money at the body shop.
I had the best intentions, trying to be a nice guy and inadvertently causing a crash. If I had seen a left turn signal, I would not have stopped short. I have policed enough traffic crashes on Stadium Boulevard, Washtenaw Avenue and Plymouth Road to know that these incidents are fairly common.
The problem with letting people out to make left turns in front of you is that they usually cannot see traffic in the oncoming lane that is travelling in the same direction as you. The vehicle you are driving screens the view of the oncoming traffic. To see around your vehicle, the left turner has to nose out into the second lane from the curb.
For roads with more than just two lanes, that next lane out from the curb is either another through lane or a left turn lane — either of which might have a vehicle zipping down an empty lane.
Normally in cases like these, the car nosing out into the next traffic lane is the “at fault” driver. The exception to this is if the vehicle in the oncoming lane is speeding — which is not easy prove at minor accident scenes — or if that vehicle entered the left turn lane far back from the intersection and used the left turn lane for a passing lane.
The saddest part of these crashes is that they occur when drivers are being nice to each other. I support more courtesy on the road. I love to see motorists give each other a smile and a wave of thanks when someone does something nice. I’m also disappointed when someone lets another into traffic and gets neither a wave nor a smile — which does not happen often among us Great Lakes State Midwesterners.
It is also impressive how much traffic shuttles through Ann Arbor each day with very few angry horn blasts. Even crazy chaotic Michigan Football Saturday traffic is usually blessed with few hothead horn pounding tantrums.
So here is the conundrum — the “good Samaritan” left turn crashes are caused by people trying to be nice to each other. How do we prevent these crashes?
My first bit of advice is forget the left turn out of a driveway that is close to an intersection.
Businesses at busy intersections — especially gas stations for some reason — really have the potential for calamity for those trying to make a left turn away from the intersection where the business is located. In those cases, just give it up and hang a right.
Do not be the driver who inches out “establishes a beachhead” blocks a lane, then another, then the left turn lane and forces everyone oncoming to wait through an entire green traffic light signal so this one driver can make their precious left. That is being rude and selfish and shows the rest of us that you are not the brightest bulb in the pack.
If you are approaching stopped traffic at an intersection and see anything but a right turn signal on the car in the driveway, just keep moving up to the light. You can always feign adjusting your radio, rearview mirror or checking your smartphone until the light changes in order to avoid the look of disappointment or sneer on the driver trapped in the driveway. Hopefully that person will either get a natural break in traffic after you pass or will resign himself to making a right turn.
The most difficult situation is finding yourself on the receiving end of a “Good Samaritan” left. The person in the curb lane stops short for you, to let you out. What that person is not seeing is the traffic whizzing by in the next lane or the intermittent fast mover ripping down the left turn lane. This is tough.
My best advice is to smile and put up your hands, shake your head and mouth “Thanks.” If the other driver persists with a more insistent gesture with their hand of “after you.” It is time to slip into your best Marcel Marceau impersonation and pantomime being happy, pulling out and then getting blasted by oncoming traffic, struck from the left. Then for extra credit, mime being placed in a cervical collar and giving a slight wave from the gurney while being taken away in an ambulance.
The other driver will get the message and pull up to their spot to wait for the light. They will shake their head and think you are either a “crazy” person or a mime—either of which most people try to avoid.
Lock it up, don’t leave it unattended, be aware and watch out for your neighbors.