Fighting a Traffic Ticket for Improper Turning

Driving laws related to turns and some possible defenses to an improper-turn ticket.

You can get a ticket for making an "improper turn" in lots of different scenarios. An improper turn can be a U-turn or left or right turn at an intersection. Here are some of the basics about turning laws and how to defend against and improper-turn ticket.

Left and Right Turns

The laws of most states read something 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.

In other words, you aren't supposed to make a right or left turn unless you're in the corresponding far right or left lane. Additionally, before making either type of turn, you should be as close to the curb or edge of the roadway as reasonably possible.

Most tickets for an improper right turn are based on the turn being made while the driver allegedly wasn't as close as reasonably possible to the curb or edge of the roadway. So, defenses to these types of tickets should focus on why it was reasonable to make the turn without being right next to the curb or edge of the roadway. Generally, the best reasons have to do with safety and might include:

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

Another possible line of defense comes into play if the officer didn't have a good vantage point to see how close you were the curb or edge of the roadway while making the turn. With this type of defense, maps and diagrams can help.

Turns Prohibited by Signs or Marked Lanes

All states have laws that require drivers to abide by road signs and lane markings, including those that restrict turns at an intersection. These state laws often read something like this:

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

Defenses to violations of these types of laws normally focus on inadequate notice. If you received a ticket, you probably made the prohibited turn. But, if you weren't given proper notice of the prohibition, you haven't committed the violation.

For example, you might be able to beat this type of ticket in court by showing that the sign was so old and faded that it was illegible or that overgrown trees covered the sign. In making this defense, you'll probably want to bring in photographs.

Prohibited U-Turns

Most states have several times of U-turn laws. Which law applies depends on whether the driver made the turn in a residential or business district or some other area.

U-Turns in Business Districts

Most states have a business-district U-turn law that says something like this:

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.

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.

One "defense" to a charge that you made a U-turn in a business district is that you weren't in a business district when you made the turn. To figure this out, you'll need to look up how your state defines "business district" and determine whether the site of the turn qualifies. However, it's really up to the government to prove the location was in a business district. If the government can't prove this fact, you should theoretically be able to beat the case by pointing out that the government hasn't proven the charge. But, if you're sure the turn did not occur in a business district, it would, of course, help to have some proof of that.

U-Turn in Residential District

Most states have a residential-district U-turn law that says 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.

Basically, this law applies to areas of residential districts that aren't intersections with traffic lights or signs.

The most easily debatable part of these violations typically relates to whether another vehicle was approaching within 200 feet (or whatever the distance specified in the statute). If you're certain another car was not approaching within this distance, it might be helpful to bring in a map with the relevant distances and features clearly marked. You might also be able to challenge the officer's conclusion that another car was within this distance by getting the officer to admit on cross-examination that he or she just estimated the distance but did not actually measure. There could also be a defense based on the turn not taking place in a residential district (as with business district violations, you'll need to look this up and check the location).

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

Most states also have a U-turn law that applies to areas outside residential and business districts. These laws usually read something 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.

Under these laws, you're free to make a legal U-turn as long as 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. In court, you can often use maps, diagrams, or pictures to demonstrate that you could see more than the distance specified by law.

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." These catchall laws typically read something like this:

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 prosecution 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.

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