Are Left-Hand Turns a Deadly Maneuver?

by Jim Hyatt

Many people spend a good portion of the day commuting to and from work, shuttling kids to various activities or running errands around town. And with years of driving experience and a GPS handling the navigation, it’s easy to find yourself slipping into auto-pilot. But driving — and even some of the most basic driving maneuvers — require your focus and attention.

Left-hand turns actually top the list of some of the most challenging and dangerous driving maneuvers. In 2013, 31 percent of Arbella Insurance’s severe accidents — claims totaling at least $100,000 in bodily injury and property damage — involved a left turning vehicle.

The U.S. Department of Transportation reports that nationwide, 53.1 percent of crossing-path crashes involve left turns.

Additionally, a study by transportation planners in New York City found that left turns were three times as likely to cause a deadly crash involving a pedestrian.

The insurance industry, as holder of the largest set of crash data, is uniquely positioned to communicate the risks of left turns — as well as the benefits of avoiding them — to their insureds.

Local governments and city planners can also play a role, by continuing to make changes to roads and intersections to lessen the risk for drivers.

Left turns are particularly risky because the act itself disrupts the flow of traffic. Drivers must judge the speed and distance of oncoming cars, cross the opposite lane and look out for bicyclists, motorcyclists and pedestrians — many of whom are increasingly distracted by cellphones and not paying proper attention to the road themselves. Drivers may also face the glare of headlights when turning to cross the left lane, temporarily impairing their vision.

For all of these reasons, making a left turn is one of driving’s greatest risks. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that close to half of the 5.8 million car crashes in the U.S. are intersection-related and the majority of those are the result of making a left turn.

The NHTSA reports that of the 787,236 intersection-related crashes that were reported from 2005 to 2007, 30 percent were attributed to drivers’ “decision errors,” including: driving too fast or too aggressively, making false assumptions about others’ actions, illegal maneuvers, or misjudgment of the gap or the other cars’ speeds.

Interestingly, environment-attributed reasons for these crashes were extremely low, at 1.4 percent — 78.6 percent of the crashes occurred in clear weather.

Is anything being done to address the dangers associated with left-hand turns? In response to the high probability of left-turn accidents, municipalities nationwide have changed roads and intersections in an attempt to lessen the risks of intersection-related or left-turn accidents.

Some of these changes include installing Jersey barriers to prevent left turns on specific roads, jug handles, rotaries and left-turn arrows on traffic lights. The New York State Department of Transportation found that these adjustments are working: their research revealed a 50 percent reduction in accidents after adding left-turn-specific lanes at intersections and a 54 percent reduction where there was also a left-turn signal.

The case for eliminating left turns from your driving habits altogether may seem extreme, but the benefits are overwhelmingly positive. In 2004, UPS eliminated left turns for its drivers as part of a route-optimization strategy. Since then the company has saved more than 10 million gallons of gas and drivers have been able to deliver more packages in even less time.

For UPS and the average commuter alike, a route that avoids left turns may be slightly longer, but moving with the flow of traffic rather than against it makes for less idle time, greater fuel efficiency and safer driving conditions.

We in the insurance industry have a responsibility to communicate the dangers involved with left turns and encourage our insureds to make the maneuver as safe and risk-free as possible. Arbella Insurance does this by sharing safety information with its network of independent agents, who then distribute it to their clients. We also share safety tips through social media, using infographics to make information visually interesting and memorable. In our communications, we encourage using intersections controlled by left-turn arrows, jug handles or rotaries; paying close attention to distracted pedestrians; staying alert when combating the sun or oncoming headlight glare; and paying close attention to other vehicles’ speed and actions, rather than presuming what they will do.

It may also be effective to communicate the benefits of eliminating left turns from daily driving routines — the average commuter may be surprised to know that consecutive right turns are faster and more fuel-efficient.

Could the future of driving be free of left turns? It’s unlikely. Vehicle-to-vehicle communication technology (V2V) presents an interesting solution, and has reportedly advanced to such a degree that the NHTSA may start requiring it in all new vehicles as soon as 2020. Having this technology on the road could prevent as many as 592,000 left-turn and intersection crashes a year, saving 1,080 lives. But until this technology is ubiquitous on the highway, left turns will continue to pose serious risks to drivers, and we need to continue to mitigate those risks through increased communication and improved engineering on all roads across New England and the United States.