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Can American drivers be weaned off of left-hand turns?

When an official from the package delivery company UPS notes that his company leans far right, he’s not remotely alluding to political affiliations.

He’s discussing right-hand turns, which UPS gurus, many transportation engineers and other commentators all believe are generally far safer than left-hand turns. There are certainly strong arguments to buttress their opinions, from both safety and efficiency standpoints.

Most drivers in Ohio and nationally would likely subscribe quite readily to the same notion. Many of us have undoubtedly looked with trepidation in the rear-view mirror while waiting motionless in a left-turn lane, visibly flinching as vehicles are whizzing on our right side at high speeds.

Left turns are “the bane of traffic engineers” and a notable contributor to car accidents,’ says Tom Vanderbilt, the author of the best-selling book Traffic.

The reasons why are flatly many. People waiting to turn left tie up traffic behind them, increasing accident risks and the frustration levels of other motorists. A left turn into traffic obviously impacts traffic coming from the perpendicular direction. If the motorist turning left has a turn signal, that traffic, too, waits. If not, there is always a heightened risk for a so-called T-bone crash.

Truly, left-hand turns are dangerous maneuvers in many instances, bringing serious injuries and deaths to drivers and passengers each day across the country. Data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reveal that left turns result in crashes at a rate almost 10 times higher than is the case with right turns. More than one-third of fatal crashes involving a motorcycle occurred because another driver turned left in front of an oncoming motorcyclist.

An analysis by UPS indicated that generally eschewing left turns in favor of right-hand turns and circling back if necessary actually saves money on fuel, as well as being safer.

As noted in a recent media article on the subject, trying to wean drivers from left-hand turns might be a wasted effort, given our driving DNA and road culture and configuration.

Self-driving cars, though, have no emotional attachment or logical inclination to turn left if indications are that taking a couple right turns will get a driver to his or her destination more quickly and at less risk.

As the Washington Post notes, maybe they can be programmed to “do the right thing.”

Source: The Washington Post, “The case for almost never turning left while driving,” Matt McFarland, April 9, 2014

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