Drivers who have wondered whether they really have to use their turn signals every time — even in a turn-only lane — may want to take note of a state Supreme Court ruling issued Thursday.
In a case considering whether state law “compels drivers to use their signal every time they turn or change lanes on a roadway,” the court ruled unanimously, “We hold that it does.”
The ruling stemmed from a 2015 case in which a driver, David Joseph Brown, used his signal to enter a left-turn-only lane in Kennewick, but then didn’t keep the signal on once in the turn lane or while turning. State troopers pulled Brown over and subsequently arrested him for driving under the influence after a breath test measured his blood alcohol content at 0.26, more than triple the legal limit.
But that case was dismissed after a Benton County District Court judge found Brown was not required to reactivate his signal in the turn-only lane, and the troopers therefore had no reason to stop him. After conflicting decisions in Superior Court and the Court of Appeals, the state appealed to the Supreme Court.
State law says drivers must use signals to turn or move right or left “when required” continuously at least 100 feet before turning. Brown’s lawyer argued that the inclusion of the phrase “when required” indicated “there must be an occasion such as a turn-only-lane when a driver is not required to reactivate the signal when there is no other possible direction to travel.”
The Supreme Court justices emphasized that turn signals offer safety for drivers and other people on the road.
“Blind corners and unprotected left turns with oncoming traffic abound; pedestrians may or may not cross streets depending on the presence of a car’s turn signal; and, failing to signal may lead other drivers to think it safe to change lanes or turn themselves,” wrote Justice Barbara Madsen in the decision.
A turn-only lane may be clear to the drivers heading in that direction, but not obvious to oncoming traffic, the justices noted. That interpretation is bolstered by cases in other states like Kansas and North Dakota, the justices found.
“Leaving the decision to use a signal to the perception of individual drivers,” Madsen wrote, “undermines the ultimate purpose of traffic laws: preventing accidents and encouraging highway safety.”
Terry Bloor, chief criminal deputy prosecutor in Benton County, applauded the decision, saying it was “consistent with the legislative intent” of the law about turn signals.
Brown’s attorney, Randall Jameson Jr., said the ruling “allows for what most people would think are chippy or bogus stops” by police.
Brown signaled to enter the turn lane, “but with modern vehicle technology it cycled off,” Jameson said.
“Now for every turn where the signal goes off, this allows law enforcement to make a stop for that,” Jameson said.
Drivers often use their signals but not for the entire length of a lane change, said Washington State Patrol spokesman Sgt. Darren Wright. (Wright declined to comment on the court’s ruling.)
“It’s a safety issue,” Wright said. “You may have looked in your mirrors, you may have done a head check, but there are blind spots. You may think it’s clear but the person you don’t see in the blind spot may see the turn signal and react to prevent a collision.”