Left Turns and the Law

With alarming frequency, we receive calls from injury victims who were involved in motor vehicle crashes that occurred when a driver attempted to make a left turn at an intersection and was struck by oncoming traffic.

In these cases, the driver whose vehicle was struck while unsuccessfully attempting the left turn sometimes takes the position that he or she is not at fault because the traffic light was green.

While it is true that “Green Means Go,” Virginia law requires drivers intending to make a left turn at an intersection to yield the right-of-way to oncoming traffic if the traffic is close enough to constitute a hazard.[1]  Virginia law also requires vehicles with a green light to yield to other vehicles and pedestrians lawfully within the intersection.[2]

The Virginia Model Jury Instructions (which are read to the jury in lawsuits arising from traffic accidents), summarize the rule regarding left turns as follows:

The driver of a vehicle intending to turn left has a duty to yield the right-of-way to any vehicle approaching from the opposite direction that is so close as to constitute a hazard.

If a driver fails to use ordinary care to perform this duty, then he is negligent.[3]

Under Virginia law, drivers who have a round green light must absolutely yield to oncoming traffic, even if they are in a dedicated left turn lane.[4]  Drivers who have a green arrow (a “protected left”) have the right-of-way over vehicles approaching the intersection.[5]  However, all vehicles–regardless of whether they have a round green light or a green arrow–are required to yield to vehicles and pedestrians that are already present in the intersection.[6]

The Virginia Supreme Court has explained that:

A green light is not an unqualified command to a motorist to move in the direction indicated under any and all circumstances. It is only a command to do so in the exercise of reasonable care and when the movement indicated is not calculated to cause injury or damage to another. It is a conditional directive which is to be obeyed with reasonable care.[7]

These rules can be found in the Virginia Driver’s Manual, which is available on the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles’ website:

Green light or arrow: At a green light, you may go if the way is clear. At a green arrow, you may go in the direction of the arrow if the way is clear. If you are turning, you must yield the right-of-way to vehicles coming from the other direction and pedestrians in the intersection.Be sure to check for less visible vehicles such as motorcycles, bicycles, and mopeds. If a traffic light changes from red to green while a pedestrian is in the street, allow the pedestrian to cross the street before turning.[8]

It is critical that we have such clear regulations about who has the right-of-way so that there is no ambiguity or confusion about whose turn it is to proceed at an intersection.  When a driver chooses to turn across a traffic lane without yielding to vehicles coming from the opposite direction, innocent people can be seriously injured, or even killed. Knowing and following the traffic laws, and waiting patiently until it is safe to turn left, can help to prevent these tragedies from happening.


[1] Va. Code § 46.2-825.

[2] Va. Code § 46.2-833(A).

[3] Virginia Model Jury Instructions–Civil, Instruction No. 10.240 (based upon Va. Code § 46.2-825).

[4] See Graddy v. Hatchett, 233 Va. 65, 353 S.E.2d 741 (1987) (driver who made a left turn at a green ball from the left turn lane, and was struck by an oncoming car, was liable in a wrongful death case arising from the death of his passenger).

[4] Arney v. Bogstad, 199 Va. 460, 100 S.E.2d 749 (1957).

[5] Va. Code § 46.2-825.

[6] Va. Code § 46.2-433(A); Virginia Model Jury Instructions–Civil, Instruction No. 10.264.

[7] Arney v. Bogstad, 199 Va. 460, 100 S.E.2d 749 (1957).