How To Avoid An Illegal U-Turn Ticket

By James Baxter, NMA President

The political theory is that traffic laws should be fairly uniform, make sense to the average person, and the difference between legal and illegal behavior should be obvious. That’s the political theory, reality is a whole different story. No traffic law better displays the disconnect between this political theory and reality then the officially described “U-turn.”

The statutory definition usually makes reference to a vehicle turning in a manner that it reverses its direction of travel.

Fair enough, but what makes one of these turns legal or illegal?

It all depends where you are when you make that U-turn. While most states have some kind of legal structure that differentiates between legal and illegal U-turns, the game doesn’t end there. The states also allow local governments to further define what is legal and what is not.

So, the state may allow a mid-block U-turn, but the Town of Prongville, population 879, can have an ordinance that says mid-block U-turns are illegal.

How does the average motorist know what rule applies?

He doesn’t, not unless a prominent sign is posted explaining the more stringent local ordinance. Often, no such sign exists, prominent or not. There is no one universal code of conduct that can keep you out of harms way when it comes to implementing a U-turn.

However, if you abide by the following rules your chances of being rousted for the hideous crime of “making an illegal U-turn” will be greatly reduced.

  1. Do not make a U-turn at an intersection with a traffic signal.
  2. Do not make a U-turn in the middle of the block in urban/residential areas.
  3. Do not make a U-turn where there is a sign prohibiting U-turns.
  4. Do not make a U-turn where visibility is limited by a curve or hill crest.
  5. Do not make a U-turn if there is a police officer anywhere in sight, this is like waving a red cape at a wounded bull, regardless of legality.

This leaves uncontrolled intersections, open rural roads with good visibility, divided roadways with dedicated breaks in the divider, and locations where U-turns are expressly permitted by official signs as your least risky U-Turn opportunities.

If you need 100 percent assurance that you are legal, go around the block and re-enter the street that you want to reverse course on.

Yes, I know the blocks are quite large in West Texas and Eastern Montana.

For more official information on U-turns try this link from the Transportation Research Board:

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