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Entering intersection for left turn, explained

Here’s a question for you to think about: You want to turn left at the next intersection, the traffic signal is green, but there is a string of oncoming traffic. Do you stop at the white line (stop bar), or do you enter the middle of the intersection and wait for either a break in oncoming traffic, or for the light to change?

Answer: “You may enter the intersection to prepare for your left turn if the light is green and no other vehicle ahead of you is preparing for a left turn.” This is a direct quotation from the latest edition of the New York State Drivers Manual. If there is no break in oncoming traffic and the light changes to red, oncoming traffic will have to stop, and by virtue of the fact that you have entered the intersection legally, other traffic not already in the intersection must yield the right of way to you.

The reason behind this is to avoid the situation where there is so much oncoming traffic that you could be held up for many cycles of the traffic light. If you remain behind the stop bar and the light changes, you cannot legally enter the intersection.

Now, consider this: Does the above hold true if you are in a left-turn-only lane? To help understand this situation, let’s say you are westbound on West Main Street in the village of Malone (U.S. Route 11) and you want to turn left at Finney Boulevard to go south on state Route 30. A similar example is if you are in Saranac Lake on Broadway (state Route 86) southbound and you want to turn left on Bloomingdale Avenue to go toward Plattsburgh. In both of these examples, at the intersection discussed you will be in a left-turn-only lane.

Now suppose, as you get to the intersection, the leading green left-turn arrow turns to yellow, then extinguishes, and the only signal you are facing is a ball green. After the green arrow goes off, oncoming traffic will have a green light and can turn right or proceed straight — either way you will have to yield to this oncoming traffic.

So, what is your answer? In this case, is it permissible to still enter the intersection even though you are in a left turn only lane and you no longer have a green arrow? Again, the answer is the same as the first example: “You may enter the intersection to prepare for your left turn if the light is green and no other vehicle ahead of you is preparing for a left turn.”

I am dedicating this entire article to this situation, as an unusual number of local drivers do not seem to understand this. As I drive in other cities and even rural villages, it does not seem to be the problem that it is in our area. Sometimes it can be helpful to observe the actions of professional drivers. You will rarely see a tractor-trailer driver not enter an intersection for a left turn just because there is oncoming traffic. I see this daily as tractor-trailer drivers enter the Franklin Street (state Route 11B)-Finney Boulevard intersection to prepare to turn left toward U.S. Route 11.

Some drivers may be reluctant to enter the intersection because from that position it’s difficult to see the traffic signals if they are strung on the diagonal — that is one reason why the state is now installing far-side signal placement on mast arms.

One note of caution: Don’t assume that, just because the green facing you changes to red, oncoming traffic also faces a red. Usually this is true, but occasionally oncoming traffic still may have a green, such as the case at East Main and Elm in Malone.