Are Left Turns a Deadly Maneuver?

By Jim Hyatt | September 29, 2014

The act of driving is deceptively simple and, for most of us, part of our daily routines. Safe driving, which requires focus and attention, is becoming more of a defensive act every day, thanks in large part to the use of cellphones. Left turns are at the top of the list of the most challenging and dangerous driving maneuvers. In 2013, 31 percent of Arbella Insurance Group’s severe accidents – claims totaling at least $100,000 in bodily injury and property damage – involved a left-turning vehicle.

The insurance industry should be communicating the risks of left turns – as well as the benefits of avoiding them – to their insureds. In addition, municipalities should continue to make changes to roads and intersections to lessen the risk for drivers. The U.S. Department of Transportation reports that nationwide, 53.1 percent of crossing-path crashes involve left turns. Additionally, a study by New York City transportation planners found that left turns were three times as likely to cause a deadly crash involving a pedestrian.

Why Left Turns?

The reason making a left turn is so complex is because the act itself disrupts the flow of traffic. Drivers must judge the speed and distance of oncoming cars, battle the glare of headlights, and watch for motorcycles, bicycles and pedestrians – many of whom are becoming increasingly distracted themselves. Driving requires vigilance when watching and reacting to other drivers, and making a left turn is one of the greatest risks.

Nationwide, 53.1% of crossing-path crashes involve left turns.

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.

If you’re still skeptical about the potential hazards of left turns, consider this scenario: You’re on your way home from work and it’s raining. Traffic on the highway is heavy, other drivers are carelessly weaving through lanes and you realize that you have been on autopilot going 60 mph for the past 20 minutes of your commute. Finally, you’re in your neighborhood, just around the corner from your home – waiting at an intersection to turn left. You’ve done this drive hundreds, maybe thousands, of times, and you take for granted that when you inch out into oncoming traffic, other drivers will let you into their path – those same drivers who may be distracted by smartphones and on autopilot themselves.

These false assumptions happen all too frequently. 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,” such as driving too fast or too aggressively, making false assumptions about others’ actions, illegal maneuvers, or misjudgment of the gap or the other car’s speed. Environment-attributed reasons were at 1.4 percent, while 78.6 percent of the crashes occurred in clear weather.

What Can Be Done?

Is anything being done to address such hazardous driving behavior? 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 found 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 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 an estimated 10 million gallons of gas and drivers have been able to deliver more packages in even less time. For UPS and the average American commuter alike, a route that avoids left turns may be longer, but moving with the flow of traffic rather than against it makes for less idle time, greater fuel efficiency and safer driving conditions.

So what can the insurance industry do to help mitigate the risks associated with this problem? We must communicate the dangers involved with left turns and encourage our insureds to make the maneuver as safe and risk-free as possible. Arbella does this by sharing safety information with agents and customers. Recommendations include 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 anticipating what they will be. Consider also communicating 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? Perhaps, but it’s unlikely. Thankfully, vehicle-to-vehicle technology has reportedly advanced to such a degree that the NHTSA could 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 1,083 lives. But until a rolling stock of these vehicles is 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 the United States.

About Jim Hyatt

Hyatt is vice president of Personal Lines for Arbella Insurance, a New England regional insurer.

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