CityDig: The History of Turning Left in Los Angeles


The unprotected left turn: nothing haunts Los Angeles drivers like the prospect of swinging their car in front of oncoming traffic. Mastering the maneuver is a rite of passage for new L.A. motorists.

Left turns have long challenged motorists’ patience—and common sense. A left turn from the right lane? In 1923, L.A. drivers attempted the risky move often enough to provoke a disapproving advisory opinion from the Auto Club. The 1955 photo above illustrates another hazardous technique: “darting,” once practiced by impatient drivers.

Street design and traffic laws were slow to enforce prudent turning practices. Arm signals (hand outstretched for a left turn, raised for a right) weren’t mandatory until 1923. And left-turn pockets didn’t appear on most L.A. roads until 1956; before then, cars waiting to turn left shared a lane with thru-traffic, as if inviting a demonstration of their rear bumpers’ effectiveness. Protected left-turn signals—first introduced on Sepulveda Boulevard in 1956—are still uncommon on L.A. streets today.

A 1957 revision to the state vehicle code ushered in the most dramatic change in how Angelenos turned left. Before, drivers generally yielded only to vehicles already at the intersection. Unlike today, a driver could start a left turn unless opposing traffic presented an immediate hazard—and the oncoming cars would be required to stop and wait. After the law’s revision, left-turn drivers were not allowed to proceed unless they could safely clear the intersection before any opposing traffic reached it. Social conventions like the two-car-per-light rule followed.

The left turn presented such a challenge to motorists’ safety and the free flow of traffic that Los Angeles once tried to engineer it out of existence. For five months in 1922, an experimental traffic circle at Wilshire and Western eliminated left turns by forcing all traffic to flow counter-clockwise through the intersection. Traffic circles never caught on in L.A., but later innovations like the cloverleaf interchange would liberate the city’s freeway network from the pitfalls of the left turn.



Nathan Masters of the USC Libraries blogs here on behalf of L.A. as Subject, an association of more than 230 libraries, cultural institutions, official archives, and private collectors hosted by the USC Libraries and dedicated to preserving and telling the sometimes-hidden histories of Los Angeles.

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  • Biff

    Driving in general is more hazardous today because nobody is paying attention to what they are doing, or should be doing. Driving.

  • michael eaton

    Kind of like time travel!

  • Gale

    So great to read this article!
    I grew up in LA and started driving in the late 50’s.
    I learned to turn left: to move into the intersection until the coast was clear to turn. Once the signal changed then I could turn left and the person behind me possibly could.
    Where I live now, most people wait before the intersection and at times not even able to make a left turn as the light changed and they were not in the right position!

    • GregR

      What you describe I’ve seen happen a lot lately. I don’t know why these people won’t venture out into the intersection. What angers me is when the light turns red for cross traffic and that’s when people waiting to turn left can make their turn. It’s usually two cars in the intersection and that’s fine, but a third and a fourth also go. Meanwhile my green arrow is about to go red.