A Future Without Left Turns

It’s not as crazy as it sounds.

Traffic laws may indeed evolve to minimize (or even completely avoid) left-hand turns—at least as we know them. The reason? Left-hand turns are incredibly dangerous and cause an inordinate amount of traffic collisions. Not only that, they often create congestion and other traffic problems.

Just How Dangerous are Left-Hand Turns?

Left-hand turns in intersections, as The Atlantic reports, cause 60 percent of crashes, while right-hand turns in intersections cause just 4 percent of crashes. And left-hand turns aren’t just bad news for drivers: they cause hazards for everyone on the road. The Washington Post reports even more frightening data: NYC transportation planners found that “left-hand turns were three times as likely to cause a deadly crash involving a pedestrian as right-hand turns.” The Washington Post also reports that cars making left hand turns cause 36 percent of fatal motorcycle crashes.

But, we know you’re thinking, drivers must turn left sometimes, lest we all enter some kind of dystopian fantasy world in which all vehicles drive in clockwise circles forever. But while some left-hand turns are necessary (in residential areas, onto side streets), most experts believe minimizing them in intersections and in high-traffic areas will be a safety boon to us all. The Washington Post quoted Phil Caruso, the deputy executive director for technical programs at the Institute of Transportation Engineers, who said, “Left turns create some concerns when it comes to generating potential for congestion, back-up traffic flow, safety, accident situations. So if you can eliminate left turns, especially concurrent left turns, that’s a positive.”

Left-hand turns are involved in 60% of car crashes that take place in intersections.

Think about the difficulty of turning left with another car right next to you that’s also turning left (a concurrent left turn) and you both must navigate merging onto a busy highway or down a congested street and you may start to come around to our anti-left turn way of thinking.

new york traffic light

Precedent for Eliminating Left Hand Turns

Though the idea of eliminating—or even minimizing—left hand turns might sound impossible—and even a little batty—there’s precedent for the move.

For years now, UPS drivers have been avoiding left turns, which has resulted in safer and timelier deliveries. Yahoo Finance spoke with UPS’s Chief Commercial Officer, Alan Gershenhorn who had this to say about left turns: “Obviously making left turns [is] more dangerous because you’re crossing an intersection versus not,” and, “You can keep moving in many places making right turns where left turns you have to wait.”

UPS’s own GPS system, called ORION (for On-Road Integrated Optimization and Navigation) not only calculates the best route, but also takes traffic and tolls into account, while meeting specified delivery window timelines along the way (sadly, UPS has no plans to make ORION available to the public). Yahoo Finance reports that, “when ORION calculates the most efficient route, it almost never routes a left turn.” And while UPS allows that sometimes drivers do make left-hand turns to optimize the route, “they’re generally in more rural areas.”

Both UPS and NYC called for a reduction in left turns and have seen great results.

New York City began restricting left-hand turns over a decade ago in an effort to improve congestion and pedestrian and traffic safety. Since then, minimizing left turns resulted in a 28 percent decrease in pedestrian fatalities and a 22 percent decrease in serious injuries to pedestrians. Congestion in high traffic areas (which, if you’ve ever driven in Manhattan, feels like the entire island) also significantly improved with the “Thru Streets” model—left turn restrictions on certain streets during the busiest times.

Perhaps most significantly, both UPS and NYC proved that a reduction in left turns not only improves safety and congestion, but it’s quite feasible and painless (even in the biggest city in the U.S.).

The “Waze Left”

Waze—perhaps the most popular navigation app— famously finds drivers the fastest routes from A to B and takes traffic, accidents, and even speed traps into account. But their sometimes-unconventional routes can leave some users feeling unsafe. Waze finally begun responding to user complaints that the routes the app chooses often has them making hard left turns in spots where they’d be careening across lanes without a traffic light in sight. The left turns Waze suggests are always legal, but the company is nonetheless responding to user complaints about them on Twitter and Facebook. The Atlantic quoted Waze on the topic of left turns: “We are working every day to create a more safe environment for the local communities we serve […] In some cases like this one, that means looking closely at our routes around hard left-hand turns.”

With a national company that delivers 17 million parcels a day, the Big Apple, and one of the most popular driving apps all working to reduce left-hand turns, we are likely to see more adoption of the practice in the future—hopefully improving the safety of roadways and reducing congestion.

So what do you think? Would you go for eliminating left-hand turns?