Fighting a Traffic Ticket for Improper Turning

There are many ways to be ticketed for making improper turns. One of the most common is making an improper U-turn. Here we provide information on defending against a wide array of these violations.

Failing to Stay to the Edge of the Road to Turn

Most state laws read like this:

The driver of a vehicle intending to turn upon a highway shall do so as follows:

(a) Right Turns. Both the approach for a right-hand turn and a right-hand turn shall be made as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway.

(b) Left Turns. The approach for a left turn shall be made as close as practicable to the left-hand edge of the extreme left-hand lane or portion of the roadway lawfully available to traffic moving in the direction of travel of such vehicle, and, when turning at an intersection, the left turn shall not be made before entering the intersection. After entering the intersection, the left turn shall be made so as to leave the intersection in a lane lawfully available to traffic moving in such direction upon the roadway being entered.

The term "as close as practicable" is your best friend in defending against this violation. You will want to present evidence that shows why what you did was the most "practicable" thing to do under the circumstances. These include:

  • avoiding cars parked at the curb
  • steering clear of traffic pulling out of parking spaces
  • avoiding roadside construction, and
  • avoiding pedestrians.

Turns Prohibited by Signs or Marked Lanes

Here are edited versions of the three most common laws that make it illegal to make certain types of turns.

When turning movements are required at an intersection, notice of such requirement shall be given by erection of a sign, unless an additional clearly marked traffic lane is provided for the approach to the turning movement, in which event, notice as applicable to such additional traffic lane shall be given by any official traffic control device.

When right- or left-hand turns are prohibited at an intersection, notice of such prohibition shall be given by erection of a sign.

When official traffic-control devices are placed as required by law, it shall be unlawful for any driver of a vehicle to disobey the directions of such official traffic-control devices.

Basically, all these laws forbid right, left, or other specified turns when "notice" of special turning requirements is given by a sign, signal, or white arrow painted on the road surface. For example, a sign at an intersection may prohibit all U-turns and left turns during certain hours.

Here is one possible defense: You claim you weren't given proper notice of the prohibited turn. For instance, assume you receive a ticket at an intersection where the sign or signal prohibiting a turn was difficult to see because it was turned the wrong way, obscured by a pole, or not visible for some other reason. You argue and prove "reasonable notice" was not given, and the judge dismisses your case.

EXAMPLE: You're driving home from your new job westbound on a road you have never been on before. It's 4:45 p.m. on a Wednesday in November, and the sun is setting. You enter an intersection and turn left. The setting sun happens to be right next to the sign that says, "No Left Turn 4:00 PM–6:00 PM MON–FRI." Because of the strong glare, you don't see this sign until you have almost completed the turn. In court, you show the judge a photo you took the next day showing the sunset obscuring the sign. You argue that given the circumstances, the sign was poorly engineered. On cross- examination, the officer admits the sign was right where the sun was. You win.

Prohibited U-Turns

In most states, U-turns are almost always illegal in business districts. In residence districts and other areas, they are likely to be legal except where traffic conditions make them unsafe. Because possible defenses to U-turn tickets greatly depend on where a turn was made, let's look at the most common situations.

U-turn laws vary considerably from state to state. Be sure to read the law you're charged with violating to see exactly what its elements are. Then try to figure how you can convincingly claim you didn't violate at least one of them.

U-Turn in Business District

Most state U-turn statutes say something like:

No person in a business district shall make a U-turn, except at an intersection or on a divided highway where an opening has been provided.

In most states it is usually legal to make a U-turn unless you are in a business or residential district (see below) or a sign prohibits it. A "business district" is typically defined as a place where more than 50% of the property fronting the street is "in use for business" along a specified length, often defined as several hundred feet and often longer. Even in a business district, it usually is legal to make a U-turn at a stoplight as long as you begin your turn in the far-left lane.

Your best defense to a charge that you made a U-turn in a business district is usually that you weren't, in fact, in such a district. Typically, this involves two steps: First, looking up your state's definition of the term business district (see How to Research Traffic Laws) and then going back to the scene of your turn to see if the location meets your state's technical definition.

The officer must prove you were in a business district. Because making a U-turn in a business district is a key element of the offense you are charged with, it should be up to the officer to prove it. It follows if the officer provides no proof, you should win your case. Often it's best not to bring up this point until after the prosecution has finished presenting evidence, because you do not want to tip off the other side to your strategy. Instead, this point should be made in your direct testimony and closing argument. For example, you might say, "Your Honor, the only reason my U-turn is said to be illegal was that it supposedly occurred in a business district. But Officer Kwota didn't say a word about what kind of area it was." And then, if true of course, you could continue, "In fact, while there are some businesses in the area where I made my turn, I do not think the state proved that it falls within the definition of a ‘business district' under the law of this state."

U-Turn in Residence District

Most state laws read something like this:

No person in a residence district shall make a U-turn when any other vehicle is approaching from either direction within 200 feet, except at an intersection when the approaching vehicle is controlled by an official traffic-control device.

To be convicted of this, the prosecution must prove that you did all of the following things (violated all of these legal elements):

  1. You were driving in a "residence district," which is usually defined elsewhere in your state laws or code.
  2. You made a full 180-degree or U-turn.
  3. Another vehicle was approaching (not merely stopped) within the distance specified by the law.
  4. You were at an intersection not controlled by an "official traffic-control device" (sign or signal).

The Poor Person's U-Turn Is Okay

Dividing your U-turn into several parts makes it legal. It is legal if you turn into a driveway or parking lot, make a full stop, then back out into traffic to complete the U-turn. Think of it this way: The left turn into a driveway is legal. Backing out of the driveway is legal, as long as you stay to the shoulder of the road, stop, activate your left turn signal, and enter traffic when safe to do so. And best of all, it's a way to make what amounts to a U-turn while keeping all those green portraits of Andrew Jackson safely in your pocket.

The best ways to beat this violation are to raise doubt as to whether another vehicle was approach ing within the distance specified in your state law or whether the area was a "residence district." To demonstrate that other vehicles were not within the specified number of feet at the time you made your turn, it often helps to use maps or drawings containing a distance scale. (See Preparing Diagrams and Photos for Traffic Court.) One way to do this is to enlarge a city map to help show the judge where your car and the other vehicle were, noting that no vehicle was within 200 feet of you. Or you can draw your own map, carefully indicating the distances.

Or, you can use pictures of the street when no other traffic is present on it. That way you can mark, on the photograph, with felt-tipped or ballpoint pen, the spots where the other vehicles were. You can testify that you went back to the scene and measured the distances from where your car was to those points when you started the U-turn.

If your state law sets a more relaxed U-turn standard in rural or other nonresidential areas, you may want to try to show there weren't enough residences within the area for it to be a residence district. But be careful not to open up the possibility that you turned in a business district, which will almost always have even tighter U-turn rules.

U-Turns on the Highway (Not in Residence, Business, or Other Restricted Districts)

The law usually reads like this:

No person shall make a U-turn upon any highway where the driver of such vehicle does not have an unobstructed view for 200 feet in both directions along the highway.

This law applies to areas of any highway that are not labeled a "residence," "business," or other specified district. Here you are free to make a legal U-turn, provided you have an unobstructed view for the number of feet specified in your state law. It doesn't matter whether other vehicles are approaching within that distance, so long as you can see them clearly and it's safe to make the turn. You can often use maps, diagrams, or pictures to demonstrate that you could see more than the distance specified by law. (For defenses to a charge that your turn was unsafe, see below.)

U-Turns Across a Traffic Island

A "divided highway" is often a road with a traffic island or other physical barrier in the middle, separating the two directions of traffic. It's obviously against the law to make a U-turn over a physical barrier. Because it is very dangerous and potentially damaging to the vehicle, few sober drivers attempt it. However, a divided highway can also be designated by a "painted traffic island" consisting of two sets of double yellow lines at least two feet apart. And it's far more common for drivers to cross this type of artificial barrier.

A typical state law reads as follows:

Whenever a highway has been divided into two or more roadways by means of intermittent barriers or by means of a dividing section of not less than two feet in width, either unpaved or delineated by curbs, double-parallel lines, or other markings on the roadway, it is unlawful to drive any vehicle over, upon, or across the dividing section, or to make any left or U-turn except through a plainly marked opening in the dividing section.

In other words, you can't legally cross two pairs of double white or yellow lines two or more feet apart or a highway divider strip, except at an opening or a place where the double-double lines drop to one set of double lines (or, in some states, become intermittent).

Your best defenses:

  • The two sets of parallel lines were less than two feet apart. At your trial you can challenge the officer to say whether he or she measured the distance between the lines or just estimated them. Although technically this is a decent defense, most judges probably won't go for it (they will assume the two sets of lines were the correct distance apart) unless you measure them and prove they were not. Since people who paint highways aren't perfect, it can pay to wait until traffic is light and get out the old measuring tape.
  • There appeared to be a break in the double-double lines to accommodate a driveway. Pictures help a lot with this one, although sometimes you can challenge an officer on cross-examination to get the officer to admit that he or she can't remember. If so, when it comes to your turn to testify, you'll want to claim that the officer's inability to remember raises a reasonable doubt as to your guilt.
  • You were forced to divert over a set of double lines to avoid a dangerous traffic situation. The burden of proving any "emergency defense" is squarely on you. Be sure your emergency really relates to road conditions (you had to avoid an out-of- control truck) and not just your personal situation (you needed to stop to adjust your seatbelt).

Unsafe Turns and Lane Changes

In addition to the specific turn laws outlined above, most states also have a catchall category called "unsafe turns or lane changes." Here is a typical statute.

No person shall turn a vehicle from a direct course or move right or left upon a roadway until such movement can be made with reasonable safety and then only after the giving of an appropriate signal in the event any other vehicle may be affected by the movement.

In theory, at least, it is up to the prose cution to prove facts that, taken together, demonstrate that you were not driving safely. But in a real courtroom, the ticketing officer will probably just testify that your actions were dangerous. Although this is a conclusion—not really proof—it is usually enough to shift the burden of proof to you. (The judge will now expect you to show your actions were safe.) It is, therefore, important for you to be prepared to produce evidence that this was the case. Following are some suggestions on how to do this.

Turning Left Against Oncoming Traffic

It is legal to make a left turn in front of oncoming traffic if you can do so with reasonable safety. If ticketed, you can start by testifying that, because your turn did not cause an accident and the other driver did not have to swerve or brake sharply, your turn was safe. In addition, you may wish to point out that there was enough distance between your car and an oncoming car to make the turn safely. One good approach is to use a little mathematics to show the judge how much time you had to make your turn. Start by understanding that six car-lengths equals about 100 feet. Assuming the car approaching yours was traveling at 25 mph (or 37 feet per second), you would have about three seconds for you to make your turn. Twelve car lengths (or 200 feet) would allow about six seconds, and so on. You should explain that with the help of a diagram as part of your direct testimony and reiterate it in your closing argument.

Testify if the other driver signaled you to proceed. If the reason you made your illegal turn was because another driver signaled you to go first, you should testify that the other driver nodded or otherwise told you to go ahead with the turn.

Pulling in Front of a Vehicle Going the Same Direction

The law in most states also prohibits pulling out in front of another vehicle in an unsafe manner. This can happen when you turn right or left at an intersection in front of another car that is too close to your vehicle. And, of course, it can also occur when you change lanes abruptly, especially when you don't signal. Officers who cite for this offense will usually testify that your actions caused another car to slow abruptly, indicated by brake lights and quickly reduced speeds.

  • The other driver did not come to a screeching halt (if true) and no accident occurred.
  • The other driver overreacted by braking or swerving unnecessarily.
  • The other driver was exceeding the speed limit.
  • The officer had a poor view of the incident.

This last point can be the most important. Unless the officer was right behind your vehicle, in the case of a lane change, or sitting at the intersection in the case of a too-fast merge, the officer might not have been in a good position to be able to judge the relative speeds and positions of both vehicles. In short, you would argue the officer could not see if you performed an unsafe maneuver, as part of presenting your testimony—backed up by a diagram—that your turn was safe.

Pulling Onto a Road and Backing Up Unsafely

Typically, your state's law will say something like:

No person shall start a vehicle stopped, standing, or parked on a highway, nor shall any person back a vehicle on a highway, until such movement can be made with reasonable safety.

To win you must present testimony that you took reasonable precautions before you pulled onto the road and started backing up.

Start by explaining in your testimony what you did and why it was sensible and safe under the circumstances. Assuming your conduct might reasonably have looked dangerous to the officer, be ready to explain that the problem was really caused by the unpredictable or antisocial actions of the other driver. (Remember, this person won't be in court to contradict you.) This would be true if another vehicle suddenly did something truly dangerous, like exceeding the speed limit or making a high-speed turn. If possible, present convincing eyewitness testimony to back up your story. Plan to use a diagram or map to help show why your conduct was safe. (See Preparing Diagrams and Photos for Traffic Court.)

Failing to Signal a Turn

Your state law will say something like this:

Any signal of intention to turn right or left shall be given continuously during the last 100 feet traveled by the vehicle before turning.

Officers write many turn signal tickets claiming the offenders didn't signal for 100 feet before making a turn. (Incidentally, it's fine to use hand signals—they're just as legal as electric signals.) These tickets are tough to beat—it's your word against the officer's. Also, keep in mind that the fact that your dashboard turn signal is clicking does not mean your turn signal lights are blinking. Your lights may be out. In that case, you may claim that you made a reasonable mistake-of-fact (you shifted your signal lever but didn't know your signal lamp had burned out). But this defense can also backfire because you would have to prove that you learned of the broken bulb immediately after you were ticketed. If you knew or should have known about the defective signal before getting the ticket, you will lose your case.

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