How to Turn Left at Traffic Lights

Basic info

When you turn left at a traffic light, enter the intersection only when the light is green. You can turn left on a red light only if it is onto a one-way street and only if you stop and yield first to determine safety. If you are approaching a red light and want to turn left, make sure you are in the correct lane and stop behind the white line. Wait for the green light or green arrow. When turning left at a traffic light, you should not have to worry about pedestrians in the crosswalk in front of you, or the traffic to your left and right. This is the whole point of having traffic lights. Always be cautious, but remember that your primary focus is on the oncoming traffic facing you and the pedestrians in the crosswalk to your left.




Traffic signal anticipation

When approaching the intersection, consider whether the light is fresh or stale Traffic Signal Anticipation. Then make sure there are no turning restrictions.

Where to check first

1) The first thing to do is to check the area you are planning to turn into and make sure there is a space and simply to find out where you are going to actually end up turning.* There may not be an available space due to:
• Accident
• Construction
• Backed up traffic from the next light
• Film set
• Other reason


*If there is no space, go to the next light and turn left, or wait behind the white line for the traffic backup to clear (if the light turns yellow, you won’t be trapped in an awkward position in the intersection or blocking pedestrians).


2) Check for pedestrians. If there are people walking (or about to walk), move forward to around one-third of the way into the intersection; position the car so that you will have a short and easy turn into your lane without getting in the way of an opposing left-turning vehicle. Wait until pedestrians are out of your way and almost on the opposite sidewalk. Keep your car and your tires straight in case you get rear-ended. If the light turns yellow or red, exit the intersection when safe. (If you enter an intersection when the light is green, you can leave the intersection legally when it is safe, regardless of the traffic-light color. If you wait behind the white line when the light is green, and it turns yellow or red, legally you must stay there, and you may be there all day). If you’re unsure whether or not a person is going to walk, wait to see what they do. This is safer than turning and finding out they are walking, then having to stop at a difficult angle on the wrong side of the road.



Oncoming traffic

3) Yield to any oncoming and conflicting traffic. Left turns have zero right of way in this situation. No one should have to stop and wait for you when you are turning left. Left turns yield to right turns if there is one lane. If there is more than one lane, stagger it to be safe. In other words, time it so that when you are turning there is space beside you rather than the right-turning car. Follow a few seconds after the right-turning car or, if the right- turning car is very slow and far away, go before it.



Keep an eye on the traffic light

4) Keep an eye on the traffic light. Note especially the traffic light on the left side of the intersection since it’s in the direction you should be looking. Leave the intersection only when you are 130% sure it is safe.



Vehicle in front of you also turning left

5) If there is a car in front of you turning left, wait behind the white line in case the light turns yellow. If the vehicle turns, and the light is still green, treat it as you would any other green light. If the intersection is very wide and you can fit most (at least three-quarters) of your car in front of the crosswalk, then you may pull forward behind another vehicle. Legally, you are considered to be in the intersection. If the light changes to yellow, leave when safe (as above).

For more detailed information: How many cars can wait in an intersection for left turns?



Oncoming vehicle also turning left

6) If there is a left-turning car facing you and your visibility is diminished, or anytime you aren’t 100% sure it is safe, then wait patiently and keep your car straight. The longest you would wait is the time it takes for the light to turn yellow or red. Wait for cars racing through then leave quickly when safe to do so. Never turn unless you know it is safe and are sure that oncoming vehicles are planning to stop. There is no need to watch them stop completely but you must be sure they intend to. If other drivers behind you honk, ignore them. The safety decision is yours, not theirs. The consequences will be yours, not theirs.


Oncoming vehicle turning left

6a) When a left-turning car is facing you, and there is no oncoming traffic (and you can clearly see that there is no oncoming traffic) nor any pedestrians in the crosswalk, you should have lots of room to safely turn at the same time. Make sure that the other car is showing a left-turn signal and that the driver is actually going to turn left. Drivers sometimes have their turn signals on but then go straight, and this is a very good way to have a crash. Judge the car—is it slowing down? Can you make eye contact with the driver? Wait until it’s clearly obvious the car is planning to turn left—then proceed.



Oncoming Vehicle Turning Right – Just one example:






 Make sure they’re actually going to turn:



Easy turns

7) If there’s a space to move into, no pedestrians, no oncoming cars, and a green light, slow to 20 km/h, quickly scan the intersection from left to right, then turn and look where you’re going. You don’t have to stop first.



Flashing arrows

8) Flashing green arrows (left-turn arrow): Everyone else, including pedestrian, has a red light. If pedestrians walk while you have the flashing arrow, honk your horn and ask them to move out of the way quickly. If the light turns yellow, treat it like the point of no return. If the arrow disappears and you still have a green light, move forward into the intersection just as you would at any other green light that never had the arrow.



You can still turn left just like your normally would, even after the arrow has gone. Just treat it like you would any other left turn.

9) Left-turn signal lights: Stop behind the line and when the light turns red wait for the next green arrow. Turn left when the light changes to green. All other conflicting traffic and pedestrians will be facing a red light.

Point of no return & yellow lights

10) Point of no return is the same as going straight. If the light turns yellow and you can still safely stop behind the white line, then do so. Otherwise, if you are past the point you can safely stop, complete your left turn.

Leaving the intersection when the light goes Yellow (and then Red)

Of course, it is fine to wait until you are 120% sure it’s safe to leave the intersection, before turning left – even if that means waiting until the light has gone red before you leave (if you’ve already entered the intersection). HOWEVER! As soon as you are sure it’s SAFE to turn (and this is a judgement thing, which you can get good at by practising A LOT!) Then you must leave the intersection quickly. Do not hang out in the middle of the intersection!! See my rant on exiting intersections on yellow/red for new drivers.

Many moons ago, Carmen became an ICBC-approved driving instructor at the age of 22 in North Vancouver, and has spent many years working with new and experienced drivers around the lower mainland. She can be found reading the Motor Vehicle Act for fun while receiving strange looks from others. May the quest for great driving continue!