Back to Basics: Right, Left, and U Turns.

Posted on by Defensive Driving | in Defensive Driving Online

Before I launch into a discussion of today’s topic–turning–I’d like to take a moment to return to a previous topic: merging. Yesterday, I was driving home from a dinner out with friends. It was dark, cold, and rainy. While I was in a familiar area, I ended up having to access a major road via an entrance I seldom take. As I was about to begin my merge, I noticed a sign that read “yield.” Having recently blogged on just this topic, I immediately remembered that yield = do not merge. Instead of accelerating, I came to a stop at the end of the access ramp. As soon as a sizeable gap appeared in the traffic, I safely entered the road. At that time, the rainy conditions and poor visibility would have made a merge particularly dangerous. So, the moral of the story is: a thorough knowledge of basic road rules and diligent attention to signs and road conditions are the keys to being a safe driver!

With this in mind, let’s talk about turning, surely one of the most basic and seemingly elementary aspects of driving. However, I find that the “easy” parts of driving are the areas in which I’m most likely to get complacent and sloppy, making in practice some of the highest risk maneuvers.


The first principle of turning is: don’t be indecisive. Make up your mind that you are going to turn well ahead of time. This is particularly true when you’re driving in an unfamiliar neighborhood. If you aren’t sure of where you’re going, pull over and take a moment to get your head straight. Keeping one eye on a Google Maps printout and another on street signs is a recipe for disaster, unless you happen to have three eyes.

Once you’ve decided to turn, make sure to signal well in advance. Aim to signal a full city block (500 feet) in advance of your turn; legally, you are required to signal at least 100 feet before turning.

Right Turns

To make a right turn, first move to the right side of the road or lane you are in. If there is a bicycle lane at the side of the road, you may only enter this lane 200 feet before your turn. Make sure to watch for bicycles or motorcycles that may be travelling near the side of the road.

As you approach the intersection, slow down. If you are at an intersection, come to a stop before the limit line. Look left, then right, then left again. If the road is clear and there are no pedestrians, make your turn.

Make sure not to go “wide” on your turn. You want to end up on the right hand side of the road without dipping into the lane that approaching cars are travelling on. If you are turning onto a road with multiple lanes, make sure that you stay in the “corresponding” lane, i.e. move from right lane to right lane or center lane to center lane.

Left Turns

Follow similar steps to make a left turn. Approach the center line or divider; if there is a left-turn lane, enter this lane once you have signaled. Look in both directions and then make your turn. Once again, be careful not to cut into the lane of approaching traffic.

Turning at a red light

In the United States, you are legally allowed to turn right at a red light. To do so, first come to a full stop–NOT a rolling stop–before the stop line. Make sure that the road is clear before turning. Additionally, be particularly careful about the presence of pedestrians in the crosswalk, as these pedestrians may have a walk sign and thus won’t be checking carefully for cars.

In general, you cannot turn left at a red light. There is, however, one exception to this rule. If you are on a one-way street and are turning onto a one way street, you may turn left at a red light if there is not approaching traffic. I’ve never actually seen this happen, but I fully intend to take advantage of this situation should I find myself in it.


U-turns are, unfortunately, a necessary driving maneuver. I’ve always found them a bit nerve-wracking, perhaps because I wasn’t fully acquainted with the rules governing their use.

First of all, you can only make a legal U-turn in places where there is no “no U-turn sign posted. Next, you must be in the far left lane in order to make a U-turn. You cannot make a U-turn from the right-hand lane. You also need to be sure that approaching cars are far enough away for you to turn safely, usually a distance of around 200 feet. If you can’t see this far due to hills, curves, or poor visibility, then try to make your turn in another place. You can make U-turns at green lights, across solid yellow lines IF it is safe and legal to do so, and across openings in highway dividers.

These are places where you cannot make a U-turn:

  • At a red light
  • On a one-way street
  • Across a raised meridian or two sets of double yellow lines on a highway
  • In front of a fire station


If you’d like more detailed information on turning, including some helpful diagrams, check out this site, courtesy of the California Department of Motor Vehicles:

To learn more about this topic, or a broad range of subjects from “How To Change A Tire” to “How To Jumpstart Your Car”, visit’s Safe Driver Resources website!

Check out our defensive driving courses for more information about online defensive driving in Texas, California, Florida, and New Jersey.


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