Why is it so hard to turn left in Los Angeles?

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As anyone sitting in traffic right now can attest, Southern California has its own driving culture — we have our own etiquette, and tricks for dealing with traffic. And then of course there’s the infamous “Left Turn on Red.” You’ve likely had this experience: there’s a line of cars waiting to turn left, you’re edging into the intersection, the light’s turning red and it’s a race to see how many cars can make it. It can be stress inducing.

KCRW listener Alissa Koeppe (and, full disclosure, she’s my sister) had a question about why it’s so hard to turn left.

“In LA, you can never turn left at an intersection until the light turns red, but I just got a ticket for this. What is the actual law?” asked Koeppe. Koeppe said she tried to be the third car through the intersection as the light turned red and that’s when she was pulled over. However, she also lamented just how hard it is to turn left in LA.

So the first question is, why aren’t there more left turn arrows? The answer is this: almost all of LA’s intersections and intersection lights were built before LA’s big population boom. In the earlier part of the 20th Century, left turn lanes and left turn arrows didn’t seem like such a necessity. The first left turn arrow was installed in LA in 1965, and as of 2016 about 15 percent of all lighted intersections have left turn arrows.

The LA Department of Transportation said they are adding left turn arrows at 75 intersections next year as part of Vision Zero, an effort to minimize traffic fatalities in the city.

Safety aside, what’s the actual law on left turns?

Los Angeles Police Department Officer Bill Bustos has been with the department for over 30 years, and has spent much of that time with the traffic division. Bustos pointed to California vehicle code 24053A which specifically defines what constitutes running a red light. The code states that if a light is red, the driver must stop behind what is called the limit line – the white intersection line. If there’s a crosswalk, it’s the line before that, furthest away from the intersection. So if you’re making a left turn and you’ve crossed over the white limit line into the intersection while the light is green, then obviously you have to clear that intersection and make that left. Bustos said the intersection must be cleared for traffic to continue forward.

However, if the light turned red and a driver’s car is behind the limit line, but then they cross into the intersection, they’re in violation of that red light and can get a ticket.

Bustos said that this is all about safety. In LA the three most common causes of traffic collisions – they call them major movers – are failure to yield, red lights and speed.

Officer Bustos told me that some companies avoid left turns altogether, this includes UPS.

In fact, the United Parcel Service has developed its own navigation system in every truck to avoid turning left. It’s called Orion and is based on a 1000-page long mathematical algorithm. Matt O’Connor, spokesperson for the company, said this was implemented in order to minimize the potential for accidents and to increase efficiency.

“And that includes a lot of right hand turns,” said O’Connor. “So it ultimately comes down to efficiency. So the longer that a vehicle is waiting in traffic it’s idling, it’s not being productive. And so it takes longer to make delivery stops, it uses more fuel. It just takes longer. Where if you can keep that vehicle moving you can make your stops more quickly more efficiently in the course of a day.”

I circled back with Alissa to find out more about why she received the ticket. She said she had a car on her tail and thought she needed to be “aggressive” as many in LA think they’re supposed to be. But maybe next time, she’ll turn right instead.

What do you want to know more about?

Photo: Eric Fischer/CC