Using an appropriate turn signal when driving is not just a good idea — it is the law.
That is a recent ruling from the state Supreme Court, which unanimously holds that state law “compels drivers to use their signal every time they turn or change lanes on a roadway.”
No, that does not mean you should drive for miles with a blinker flashing — as some forgetful motorists are prone to do. But it does confirm that proper use of a signal can enhance safety for drivers, cyclists and pedestrians.
“Blind corners and unprotected left turns with oncoming traffic abound; pedestrians may or may not cross streets depending on the presence of a car’s turn signal; and, failing to signal may lead other drivers to think it safe to change lanes or turn themselves,” reads the decision written by Justice Barbara Madsen.
She also wrote: “Leaving the decision to use a signal to the perception of individual drivers undermines the ultimate purpose of traffic laws: preventing accidents and encouraging highway safety.”
While law enforcement officers probably will not spend a lot of time acting as turn-signal police, the incident that led to the ruling involves a larger issue.
In 2015, a driver in Kennewick used his signal to enter a left-turn-only lane, but did not keep it on after entering the lane or while turning. He was pulled over and then arrested for driving under the influence after a breath test measured his blood-alcohol level of 0.26 — more than three times the legal limit.
The case was dismissed when a Benton County District Court judge ruled the driver was not required to reactivate his signal in the turn-only lane and, therefore, police did not have cause to stop him. After conflicting decisions in Superior Court and the Court of Appeals, the case landed in front of the Supreme Court justices.
The case is an important one in the tug-of-war between personal liberty and the power of government. Few people would argue in favor of indiscriminate traffic stops at the whim of officers; likewise, few would argue that the public good was not served by removing somebody with a 0.26 blood-alcohol level from the road.
The law requiring the use of turn signals was not intended to catch drunk drivers, but in this case it provided that important side benefit. A deputy prosecutor in Benton County, where the case originated, applauded the Supreme Court ruling as being “consistent with the legislative intent” of the law regarding turn signals.
With an ever-expanding roster of local, state and federal laws, many citizens often decry an overprotective “nanny state.” Driving laws, however, clearly point out the benefits of legislative action when they reflect a societal commitment to solving problems.
Over the past 40 years or so, laws have been passed requiring the use of seat belts and car seats; instituting stringent penalties for driving under the influence; establishing vehicle safety measures such as airbags; and reducing speed limits in heavily traveled areas. The result: Traffic fatalities are about one-third as frequent as they were in 1980.
The Supreme Court ruling does not address all of that; it simply confirms that state law requires drivers to use turn signals, and that officers have a right to pull over drivers who fail to comply.
For motorists throughout Washington, there are two takeaways: One, do not drink and drive, which already should have been readily evident. Two, use your turn signal when appropriate while driving in the state. It is, after all, the law.