Is It Legal to Change Lanes in an Intersection? | L.A. Can't Drive

Is It Legal to Change Lanes in an Intersection?

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So L.A. is full of self-entitled arrogant drivers who break traffic laws without a second thought even though they know that what they’re doing is wrong. What’s scarier than that? Dumb, self-entitled arrogant drivers who don’t know that they’re breaking laws, like the belligerent driver of this red Dodge pickup truck on Pass Ave. in Burbank. This brings up a question that many people to seem to have:

Is it legal to change lanes in an intersection?

I’m going to give you the answer that’s been given to me by both traffic cops and traffic instructors. Since I also do part-time insurance adjusting, primarily regarding automobile collisions, I’ll give you the take that most insurance companies tend to have on this matter.

In short, the answer is “NO.”

According to the 2008 California v.c. 21658(a): “Whenever any roadway has been divided into two or more clearly marked lanes for traffic in one direction, a vehicle shall be driven as nearly as practical entirely within a single lane and shall not be moved from the lane until such movement can be made with reasonable safety.”

What does this mean in layman’s speak? You can get cited for an unsafe lane change if you cause an accident (or even a near-accident) while changing lanes in the middle of an intersection. Ever wonder why some intersections actually have lane markings while others don’t? Most often, this occurs in very large intersections, intersections with multiple turn-only lanes, and intersections that are not more or less perpendicular. Remember that the law always veers toward the side of caution, so in the absence of lane markings in a particular intersection, the safest and least confusing way to cross that intersection is by staying in the lane in which you were in when you first entered that intersection. Though v.c. 21658 says nothing about “intersections”, the “unsafe lane change” citation is used very broadly by law enforcement, much the way v.c. 22350, traveling at an unsafe speed for the conditions, is used for rear-enders, speed demons, and drivers who are caught putting on lipstick while traveling 5 mph.  And remember, lanes don’t have to have to be demarcated by yellow or white lines. For those of you who live on small streets in the suburbs, you know very well to stay in your “lane” on the right side of the road even though there may not be a solid or dotted yellow line in the middle of the road.

Furthermore, since you can legally make a right turn on red in California when it is absolutely safe to do so, changing lanes in the middle of an intersection is both unsafe for the driver going straight and confuses the driver making a right. However, even in this particular scenario, in the event of a collision an officer can cite the car going straight for an unsafe lane change while citing the car making a right turn for not yielding the right of way. It sucks, but that’s the way it is. Think of it as getting cited for an unsafe lane change yourself for signaling to your left and proceeding with your lane change, only to be thwarted by an asshole that slams on his/her accelerator to prevent you from cutting in front–resulting in a collision.

Again, whenever in doubt, always side with caution, and you will always have the law on your side. Patience and common sense will save a lot of time, money, and heartache, whereas egocentric road rage will inevitably result in an auto accident.

The driver of this Dodge pickup truck technically violated both v.c. 21658(a) and v.c. 21750: “The driver of a vehicle overtaking another vehicle or a bicycle proceeding in the same direction shall pass to the left at a safe distance without interfering with the safe operation of the overtaken vehicle or bicycle, subject to the limitations and exceptions hereinafter stated.” Layman’s term’s? He didn’t pass to his left. Though it’s generally accepted to pass on the right when it’s absolutely safe to do so and you’re not exceeding the speed limit in the process (say, passing to the right of a “wide load” vehicle that’s in the left lane that’s approaching a left turn only lane), passing to the right in this intersection at Pass and Oak (which is what happened here), especially when a car has already initiated a right turn on red from the perpendicular street, was definitely not safe. To make matters worse, this road raging prick then threatened to rear-end the other driver by riding up against its rear, swerved to his left without signaling (nearly hitting the car he just tried to pass in the intersection), and then had the gall to glare at the right-turning driver. In fact, all along Barham, this guy was tailgating, speeding, weaving, and refusing to signal.

Regarding traffic tickets, this guy would probably get cited for an unsafe lane change and/or passing on the right in the event of an accident. On the insurance front, if you have a witness, and you’re the car making a right on red, you could successfully argue that you were making a right on red when it was safe to do so since all approaching vehicles were already in the left lane in the intersection when you initiated your turn. This jackass’s attempt to pass on the right in the intersection makes him the proximate cause for the accident. If there are no witnesses, you still might get faulted for comparative negligence for not yielding the right of way to through traffic. Again, does this suck? Yes it does…which is why defensive driving is so important in this town, and in any other city replete with road ragers.

Now there’s the letter of the law and the spirit of the law (both “courtesy” and “common sense” are mentioned in the DMV handbook), both which are meant to make driving conditions safe for everyone on the road. Ergo, changing lanes in an intersection does not meet either stipulation. And if you need any more proof, I saw a police officer pull over a car just the other day for causing a near-accident for making an unsafe lane change in front of another car (passing from the left to the right in this case) in Beverly Hills.

Agree? Disagree? Any other authority opinions on the matter?

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15 Responses to “Is It Legal to Change Lanes in an Intersection?”

  1. Right turn on a red light in CA:
    It’s legal, I know. But don’t you have to come to a complete stop AND THEN proceed if it’s safe? Or can you just come to a “cruising stop” through it (or even blast through it full speed and then some like most drivers do)?

    I’ve always wondered if I was a prick for stopping completely at reds, checking for traffic, and then going. Or if the people who would honk behind me were pricks.

    Who’s right here?

  2. H, you are in the right.

    Legally, you must come to a complete stop before the limit line before proceeding with a right turn on red. The “California roll” at red lights and at stop signs are illegal, though everyone seems to do it. At camera-enforced intersections, if you do not come to a complete stop before making a right on red, the cameras will take your photo and cite you for running a red light (assuming that they’re working properly).

    FYI, when traffic cops look to see whether or not you make a full stop at red lights or stop signs, they look at your rims and your tires. Rotation has to completely cease for them to consider that you came to a complete stop.

  3. Looking at the rims and tires is an old motorcyclist’s trick. The top of the tires travel twice as fast as the rest of the vehicle (think about it), so it’s easier to see if the vehicle is moving or not, i.e. is the vehicle going to pull in front of you from the stop sign on the side street.

  4. Citing that same v.c. 21658(a) you used, the key is “until such movement can be made with reasonable safety.” Note that there is nothing in that vehicle code that says anything about intersections nor is there any other code that makes it illegal to change lanes in intersections. The takeaway is that, in general, you should only change lanes when it’s safe to do so, but, once it is safe, you are free to change lanes whether in an intersection or not. Obviously, if you make a prick lane change like it sounds like this fella did, you can (and should) get ticketed for it, but that would be the case regardless of whether you performed said prick action in an intersection or not (e.g., your Beverly Hills example towards the end of the post).

  5. Bobbo, great points. I suppose the question is what is the objective of most people who are changing lanes in intersections? Usually it’s too pass, and more often than not it’s to avoid getting stuck in the intersection (ie. tailing the car in front of them without checking to see if there was enough clearance before proceeding forward). I guess the gray area is where the spirit of the law comes in vs. the letter of the law. If’ it’s 3 am in the morning and you’re the only car on the street, then sure, switching lanes in an intersection isn’t a big deal. But when there’s a lot of traffic on the road, common sense will dictate that changing lanes in unmarked intersections lends itself to unsafe driving. If the law demands that in multiple turn lanes (say 2 left hand turning lanes), you must initiate and finish the turn in the same lane, so as to avoid cars colliding into each other, reason dictates the same should hold true while going straight. And in the end, since cops do use unsafe lane change citations pretty liberally, it’s probably best not to try to nitpick around the lettering of a law and just suck up with driving straight a few extra feet.

  6. We have heated case here in Ohio regarding a mortorcycle passing another motorcycle on the right in an intersection and fatally smashing into the side of an SUV. My friend was the driver of the SUV. He’s pleaded not guilty to the vehicular manslaughter charge and is demanding a jury. What do you guys think? http://www.the-daily-record.com/news/article/3844422

  7. Carol, unfortunately, according to what I read in the article, your friend was turning left in front of oncoming traffic at an intersection. So even though the motorcyclist was drunk and changing lanes in the middle of the intersection, your friend legally had to yield the right of way before initiating any left turning movement. Was there any associated factors for the accident on the police report? For example, if your friend’s failure to yield the right of way was the main cause of the accident, an associated factor could be that the motorcyclist was speeding. Were there any witnesses that could testify to the fact that the motorcyclist was speeding? This could help reduce the severity of any sentence if your friend is convicted.

  8. cool you saytik! Write more!

  9. I-95, U-405,
    You wrote, ” If the law demands that in multiple turn lanes (say 2 left hand turning lanes), you must initiate and finish the turn in the same lane.” But the CA vehicle code does NOT state that. It says that when making a left turn you can move into any lane that it’s safe to turn into.
    And I greatly agree with Bobbo. An unsafe lane change isn’t any more unsafe just because it was made in an intersection, and it isn’t any more safe if it’s NOT made in and intersection. In fact, No One has explained what would make a lane change any less safe by making it in an intersection — it seems people state that it’s obviously less safe because it’s less safe. Shees! what dumb logic!

  10. Bobby, what you are talking about is a left turn from a single left turn only lane. In that scenario, yes, you can go to any lane that’s open if you can do so safely. However, go to this link and look at Example #7 and the graphic that goes with it:

    http://www.dmv.ca.gov/pubs/hdbk/turns.htm#turnexamples

    Granted, they’re talking about instances at a T-intersection, but the car in the middle lane, which has an option of turning right or left, is supposed to follow the turn so that it ends up in the appropriate lane.

    As for why some people say making a lane change in an intersection is more unsafe, I suppose it’s because lane markings tend to cease in the middle of intersections. In some very large intersections, sometimes the municipality has chosen to paint lane markings in the intersection, but for the most part they’re non-existent. As a result, one could argue that it’s riskier to make a lane change maneuver when there aren’t any markings on the pavement. I suppose one could also argue that there are more hazards to be aware of in an intersection than not…so why not wait the few extra feet before executing a lane change?

    In the end, it’s up to the judgement of the officer who cited an unsafe lane change as to why such a lane change was unsafe. Sure, you can be a martyr and try to fight this in court, though I think the smarter, safer, and more time-efficient route would be to just not execute lane changes in intersections.

  11. Even. changing lanes in the vicinity of an intersection (without even having entered it) is not illegal. That’s why there are unbroken lanes near the intersection!!

    Unbroken lanes = Do not change lane.
    If you are not to change lanes near an intersection then you certainly should not be changing lanes when you are in the intersection.

    I second the ‘dumb prick’ charge, and raise it to a f’ing a$$hole.

  12. Learn how to spell before you bitch about something. I didn’t read past the first sentence because you couldn’t spell BREAK correctly. Sad if you were paid to write this article.

  13. The spelling error is what you took from this? Thanks for letting me know (made the change), but that’s very stereotypically L.A. if that’s all you got from that post (or any post on bad drivers, for that matter). By the way, spelling errors abound on every site on the web, but if you read more maybe you would know that. But then again, maybe you follow your m.o. and stop reading right when you come across an oversight in editing.

  14. I believe you are incorrect as regards CA VC 21658. I was ticketed for this VC section and even if the officer had shown up in court with her notes the judge indicated I would have won based on the arguments I made in my motions to dismiss. The key element in VC 21658 is the clause ‘when there are clearly marked lanes’. Most intersections DO NOT have ‘clearly marked lanes’. Therefore, in such an intersection, VC 21658 would not be enforceable on the elements of VC 21658. There is a further possibility that VC 21658 would not be enforceable because there could be argument made that would state that because you are in an intersection you are not on a roadway which is another key element of VC 21658. VC 22100 implies you are not on a roadway when in an intersection because it contains language to the effect that you leave an intersection and travel in a lawful lane of traffic on the Roadway being entered. So I believe VC 21658 does not qualify in this situation. However, there is or was a VC section that states it is unlawful to make a lane change within 100 feet of an intersection which might make changing lanes in an intersection unlawful but then because at this point you in the intersection does the restriction of 100 feet apply because you are no longer within 100 feet of the intersection as you are now in the intersection.

  15. Jim, thank you so much for that detailed response. It definitely gives us something to think about, since it’s certainly a gray area (if it weren’t, you wouldn’t have been cited) that drivers often debate over. I have to look at the cited codes more carefully, but I believe there is one that states that you have to continue in the lane that you’re in when you enter an intersection. It’s true that some intersections don’t have clearly marked lanes, so I believe that is the clearest argument in defense of an unsafe lane change citation. In the end, I think we can all agree that to avoid the hassle of having to deal with a possible citation from a cop with a more stringent interpretation of the vehicle code and appearing in court, it would probably be best if we opted to change lanes while not in any given intersection.

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