In the state of Washington, you are allowed to turn left on a red light onto a one-way street

A little-known quirk of the driving laws in the state of Washington is that, after coming to a complete stop, you are allowed to turn left on a red light onto a one-way street.

Note the requirement that the destination street be a one-way street. A left turn against a red light onto a two-way street is not allowed.

What is even less well-known is that a one-way freeway onramp is considered a one-way street.

The opportunities to take advantage of this rule do not often arise because there is usually enough conflicting traffic (both vehicular and pedestrian) that you cannot safely execute the turn. But one place where it becomes useful is near Microsoft main campus: If you're traveling eastbound on NE 40th Street and wishing to turn left to enter state route 520.

When waiting for the green left arrow, you can encounter the situation where non-turning traffic has a green light, which means that there can be no inbound traffic from the right hand side. (Doubly so because they also have a "No turn on red" sign, so not only can they not go straight or left, they can't even turn right.) This means that the only sources of conflicting traffic are oncoming traffic and pedestrians crossing the onramp.

Checking for pedestrians is easy because pedestrians don't move that fast, and there is not very much pedestrian traffic on that side of the street anyway. Oncoming traffic is easy to to check because you're looking right at them. Furthermore, the traffic light at the intersection of NE 40th Street and 156th Ave NE meters the oncoming traffic, so when that light turns red, the oncoming traffic often vanishes, which means that you have a huge gap in which to make your left turn.

Note that the state of Washington is unusual in permitting a left turn on a red light from a two-way street to a one-way street. Most states limit this to the case where you are turning from a one-way street to a one-way street.

Comments (23)
  1. Kevin says:

    New York permits left-on-red from a one-way to a one-way, but NYC bans all turns-on-red unless signage indicates otherwise. Manhattan has, of course, the highest density of one-way streets in the entire state.

    There is (Politico alleges) one location in the entire city where you can legally make a left-on-red, apparently because the local electrical infrastructure was too outdated to install green arrow signals.

    1. Brian_EE says:

      I just learned about the NYC difference to the general state-wide right-on-red rules. My daughter went to college, and because she has her own car she often gives her friends rides to the shopping plaza on the other side of town. Some of her new friends are from “down state” and freaked out at her when she stopped, then turned right on red. All they knew was that it was illegal, even though in most of the state it’s not.

  2. cheong00 says:

    “Turn on red” is also allowed in China.

    On the other hand, in Hong Kong you should stop on red light, unless there is a green traffic light pointing to the direction to turn.

    When I first travel to ShenZhen myself, I was almost hit by a car because I was not aware of this traffic rule difference.

  3. Martin Bonner says:

    Michigan allows left-turn-on-red from a two-way street too.

  4. Eric TF Bat says:

    In Australia, you occasionally see signs that say Left Turn On Red Permitted After Stopping. It’s obviously a different thing, since we drive on the left, and I’ve NEVER seen Right Turn On Red signs.

    For something potentially similar, check out Hook Turns, which are basically: you’re in the left lane; you want to turn right; there’s a tram track here; so you pull over to the left and then cross to the right when the lights have changed.

    Hmmm… maybe that IS a Right Turn On Red then!

  5. Karellen says:

    Wait, left-on-red? That’s even crazier than right-on-red! (Even right-on-red is not a thing where I live, and always sounds highly dangerous to me whenever it’s discussed.)

    In the places where you can turn left on red, can you also go straight-on on red? If so, why bother controlling that entrance to the intersection with lights at all; why not just have a STOP sign?

    1. Damien says:

      I believe that in the context of discussions like this, you’ll be in a filter lane of some kind with a dedicated signal where Red means Stop (With various provisos as above) and Green means You can now turn Left. Traffic for straight-on or Right at the same junction would be in different lanes with their own sets of signals.

      I’m UK based, and wish there was some official leniency at times (or that we employed part-time signals in more places) when I sit waiting at a junction at 3am with no other traffic in any directions, but I’ve got a Red.

    2. Rick C says:

      “That’s even crazier than right-on-red!”

      What’s so crazy about right-on-red? (Bear in mind, it’s actually “right-on-red-after-stop”.)

      Texas has some intersections with *two* right lanes, and, in the absence of signage forbidding it, it’s legal to make a right on red (again, after stopping) from either lane.

      1. Karellen says:

        It’s crazy because it’s on red. The light is red. Red means stop, do not proceed. That’s what red means. That’s the point of a red light.

        If you live in a jurisdiction where that is always the case, and has always been the case, hearing about some other place where red does not always mean stop seems like… dogs and cats living together! Mass hysteria! It’s just not done.

        1. Then you’ll be even more horrified to learn that in many states right on red includes a red *arrow* too, though usually “no turn on red” signs exist at most locations that use red arrows. Not to mention that there is an intersection near where I live with a sign warning “right turn has no green”, so you *must* turn on red if you need to turn right there (because the red light is always on, only a green left arrow periodically comes on).

    3. Sam says:

      Turns on red follow the general principle that drivers can cross a single conflicting stream of traffic at their own judgement. This is similar to the principle of a two-way stop; essentially the rule allows a right turn to convert a red stop light into a two-way stop sign. Another example is an unprotected left turn; you’re crossing the oncoming traffic at your own judgement.

      Left-turn on red fits within the exact same principles, from a one-way to a one-way street, there will only be one conflicting traffic direction, so it hardly is crazy.

      (The exception is states like Michigan which allow a left turn on red from a two-way street to a one-way, where you do have two potentially conflicting streams of traffic)

  6. Brian says:

    Texas allows “left turn on red”, but it’s one of the states that Raymond describes as allowing it only if both the from-street and the to-street are one-way. Being an immigrant from Montreal (which shares Manhattan’s aversion to “turn on red”), that just seems strange to me.

  7. DWalker07 says:

    In my state (New Mexico), we can also turn left onto a one-way street on a red light even if the street you are turning from is a two-way street. But, I can’t think of any streets (in my area) where this applies…

    Also, in my city, like a lot of places that have right-turn-on-red-after stop (regardless of the one or two-way-ness of the streets), there are a couple of places where there are two right-turn lanes from one street onto another. It’s a little weird to turn right from the “left-side right turn lane” onto another street, but if you are careful and there are no pedestrians, it’s legal and safe.

  8. George says:

    At one time right-on-red was forbidden in Washington, DC. Then the Federal government decided that right turns on red saved gasoline and imposed some sort of penalty (or withheld some subsidy) if a jurisdiction did not allow right turns on red. So DC allowed right turns on red where not explicitly prohibited, and put up a remarkable number of signs forbidding them at particular intersections.

  9. Mike_C says:

    Oregon is another state with that law. Sadly, most people forget that after passing their driving tests…

  10. I don’t know if this is used all over Washington, but the flashing yellow left turn arrows that I saw around Seattle are a nice idea. It means that you can make a left turn if it’s safe, but oncoming traffic still has a green light. That situation isn’t possible with a signal with three solid arrow aspects, where turns are either always allowed or never allowed.

    1. R P (MSFT) says:

      Those flashing yellow arrows are in the MUTCD, and they’re starting to appear all over the country, often to the consternation of the usual gang of curmudgeons who write letters to the editor (or who are editors, in the case of one newspaper I won’t name here.)

  11. In the UK we just have filter lights to tell you when you’re allowed to do something like take a turning when the rest of the traffic on your road is seeing a red.

  12. Glytzhkof says:

    Did you ever try a Melbourne “hook turn”? Very unusual:

  13. Standard left on red from one way to one way permitted here. I’ve only had the opportunity to do it once in my life. Pretty common to see people get confused and do a left on red from a two way to a one way even though it’s not legal… Honestly though, with all the near misses I’ve seen and been involved in recently I would ban all turns on red whether right or left. In today’s highly distracted world it’s no longer safe to allow people to attempt turns on red of any kind.

    1. JSmith459 says:

      Turns on red are not supposed to require anybody but the turning car paying attention. If any other vehicle needs to react in any way to that turn, then it is supposed to be an illegal turn, exactly the same as going straight through the red light.

  14. California also allows left-on-red, if the starting and finishing streets are both one-way.

  15. Drak says:

    In my country the idea is to put traffic lights in places where the situation would be dangerous without them. But then, in my country most roads have bicycle paths next to them, and footpaths next to those. With mopeds and electric bikes on the cycle paths it becomes almost impossible to safely make even a right turn after stopping, because the traffic on the bike path can be going up to 50kph, which does not give you much time to see it before it hits your car :P

    Also, always fun when you have to stop on a roundabout and then move on across the cycle and footpaths without properly being able to see if anything is coming up behind/right of you in modern cars with small rear side windows.

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