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Many motor vehicle accidents start with a left hand turn. Most car versus motorcycle and car versus bicycle accidents find their genesis in left hand turns.

In fact, left hand turns are such a frequent cause of accidents that there is a specific jury instruction devoted them. WPI 70.02.01 governs rights of way involving a vehicle making a left turn. It provides:

[A] driver intending to turn to the left within an intersection shall yield the right of way to any vehicle approaching from the opposite direction that is within the intersection or so close thereto as to constitute an immediate hazard. This right of way, however, is not absolute but relative, and the duty to exercise ordinary care to avoid collisions at intersections rests upon both drivers. The primary duty, however, rests upon the driver turning to the left, which duty must be performed with reasonable regard to the maintenance of a fair margin of safety at all times.

See also RCW 46.61.185.

It is interesting to note that courts interpreting the jury instruction and the statute on which it is based have held that the duty to yield the right-of-way to the non‑turning vehicle (including motorcycles and bicycles) is so strong that it even applies where the oncoming vehicle is proceeding illegally. Doherty v. Metro. Seattle, 83 Wn.App. 464, 921 P.2d 1098 (1996); Ellwein v. Hartford Accident & Indemn. Co., 95 Wn.App. 419 976 P.2d 138 (1999).

This issue has arisen in a case we’re handling where a left hand turning driver collided with a bicyclist who wasn’t using a code compliant light on his bicycle.

The jury in the car versus bicycle accident mentioned above will have to apply the law. Even though juries are charged with the responsibility as applying the laws described to them by the judge (in jury instructions) it is always interesting to see whether they strictly apply the law or whether they instead decide the case based on their own perceptions about right and wrong.

Do you think that the bicyclist should still have the right-of-way even if he didn’t have a light on his bicycle and was proceeding at night? Do you think this changes if he was either in or close to the crosswalk?

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