Left turn accidents
This page discusses the British Columbia statutory provisions and case law relevant to left turn accidents at controlled intersections i.e. when a left turning driver turns in front of an oncoming driver who intended to proceed straight through the intersection. The discussion below uses the terms “left turning driver” and “oncoming driver” to describe the vehicles involved in such accidents.
Sections 128, 129, and 174 of the Motor Vehicle Act, RSBC 1996, c. 318 are relevant to left turn cases.
Section 128(1)(a) of the Motor Vehicle Act is the “yellow light provision” and it states that “[w]hen a yellow light alone is exhibited at an intersection by a traffic control signal, following the exhibition of a green light… the driver of a vehicle approaching the intersection and facing the yellow light must cause it to stop before entering the [intersection] unless the stop cannot be made in safety…”.
Section 129(1) of the Motor Vehicle Act is the “red light provision” and it states that “when a red light alone is exhibited at an intersection by a traffic control signal, the driver of a vehicle approaching the intersection and facing the red light must cause it to stop before entering the [intersection]”.
The combined effect of sections 128(1)(a) and 129(1) is that a driver is permitted to enter an intersection on a yellow light if it is not possible to stop safely, but is never permitted to enter an intersection on a red light: when traveling at a reasonable speed it should be possible to stop within the full cycle time of a yellow light.
Section 174 of the Motor Vehicle Act states that a left turn must not be made if an oncoming car poses an immediate hazard, but that if a left turn has been commenced when there was no immediate hazard, oncoming cars must yield to the left turner:
When a vehicle is in an intersection and its driver intends to turn left, the driver must yield the right of way to traffic approaching from the opposite direction that is in the intersection or so close as to constitute an immediate hazard, but having yielded and given a signal as required by sections 171 and 172, the driver may turn the vehicle to the left, and traffic approaching the intersection from the opposite direction must yield the right of way to the vehicle making the left turn.
(Motor Vehicle Act, RSBC 1996, c. 318, s. 174).
In most cases, if a left turner commences a left turn when the oncoming vehicles do not pose an immediate hazard, the turn will be completed before the oncoming vehicles arrive at the intersection. However, the second part of s. 174 provides that if the left turner does not, for some reason, complete the turn before the oncoming vehicles arrive, the oncoming vehicles must stop in order to avoid a collision. If indeed the left turn was commenced in circumstances when the oncoming vehicles were not an immediate hazard, then the oncoming vehicles should have had time to stop.
In Raie v. Thorpe (1963), 43 W.W.R. 405 (BCCA) the British Columbia Court of Appeal held that the time for assessment of whether an oncoming vehicle is an immediate hazard is when the left turning vehicle commences its left turn:
[T]he punctum temporis at which the question of immediate hazard and right of way arises is the moment before the driver who proposes to make a left turn actually commences to make it and not some earlier time.
(Raie v. Thorpe (1963), 43 W.W.R. 405 at para. 25 (BCCA)).
That principle was affirmed in Gervais (Guardian of) v. Yewdale (Trustee of), 1994 CanLII 507 (BCCA) where a left turning car collided with an oncoming motorcycle. The trial judge in that case found the left turner 100% liable and the Court of Appeal upheld that finding. The Court of Appeal said the following regarding assessment of immediate hazard:
Whether the respondent was an immediate hazard at the time the [left turner] started her left turn, depends upon both the proximity and speed of the motorcycle.
(Gervais (Guardian of) v. Yewdale (Trustee of), 1994 CanLII 507 at para. 40 (BCCA)).
In Pacheco (Guardian of) v. Robinson, 1993 CanLII 383 (BCCA) the British Columbia Court of Appeal confirmed that left turning drivers are required to check that their left turn can be made safely before proceeding:
In my opinion, a driver who wishes to make a left hand turn at an intersection has an obligation not to proceed unless it can be done safely. Where each party’s vision of the other is blocked by traffic, the dominant driver who is proceeding through the intersection is generally entitled to continue and the servient left-turning driver must yield the right of way. The existence of a left-turning vehicle does not raise a presumption that something unexpected might happen and cast a duty on the dominant driver to take extra care. Where the defendant, as here, has totally failed to determine whether a turn can be made safely, the defendant should be held 100 percent at fault for a collision which occurs.
(Pacheco (Guardian of) v. Robinson, 1993 CanLII 383 at para. 15 (BCCA)).
It is clear from the foregoing that when assessing immediate hazard one must consider the speed and position of the oncoming vehicle at the time the left turning vehicle commences its left turn.
Apportionment of liability in left turn cases
It is often difficult to apportion liability in left turn cases. The following discussion outlines various cases involving apportionment, and focuses on British Columbia Court of Appeal cases involving drivers turning left as the lights change from green to yellow.
In Uyeyama (Guardian ad litem of) v. Wittenberg,  BCJ No 1883 (CA) (QL) it was a dark and rainy night and the oncoming vehicle was traveling 45 miles per hour in a 30 mile per hour zone. The oncoming driver then accelerated to 55 miles per hour as it entered the intersection. There were three oncoming lanes and the oncoming car was in the middle lane. After the light turned amber, the left turning car thought that all oncoming cars would stop and turned across one and a quarter of the three oncoming lanes i.e. a quarter of the way into the lane the oncoming car was in. At that point the left turning driver realized that the oncoming car in the middle oncoming lane was not going to stop and so halted her turn. By the time the oncoming car reached the intersection, the light was red. The driver of the oncoming vehicle swerved to the right to avoid the left turning vehicle which had turned into its path, and in doing so lost control of the car and collided with a stone wall. The trial judge found the oncoming driver to be 85% liable and the left turning driver to be 15% liable. The left turning driver testified that she thought the oncoming car would stop, but the trial judge found that the left turning driver was negligent in turning in front of the oncoming car when she should have realized that the oncoming car was traveling fast and may not stop.
The Court of Appeal varied the apportionment made by the trial judge and found the oncoming driver 100% liable. The Court of Appeal held that in light of the speed of the oncoming car, it would have been too far away from the intersection at the time the light changed to yellow for the left turning driver to be able to estimate its speed. Further, the Court of Appeal held that even with the left turning driver being 25% into the lane of the oncoming car, there was still approximately 15 ft clear to the right of the then stopped left turning car for the oncoming car to use in steering around the left turning car. If the oncoming car had been traveling within the speed limit it would have been able to safely navigate around the left turning car. Indeed, the oncoming car did steer around the left turning car, but then lost control because of its excessive speed. The Court of Appeal held that given the timing of the light change the left turning driver was entitled to assume that the oncoming driver would stop:
I cannot find [the left turning driver] at fault for assuming that the [oncoming] vehicle was going to stop according to traffic law. Indeed, it is evidence known to us by hindsight, but not by [the left turning driver], that the [oncoming] vehicle ran the red light, thereby establishing that it did not stop according to traffic law. In my view this supports the correctness of [the left turning driver’s] assumption that [the oncoming vehicle] was going to stop.
(Uyeyama (Guardian ad litem of) v. Wittenberg,  BCJ No 1883 at para. 43 (CA) (QL)).
In a concurring judgment Seaton J.A. praised the left turning driver and confirmed that a left turning vehicle will not necessarily be liable just because it turns into the path of an oncoming car:
It seems to me that [the left turning driver] handled this matter better than most of us could have. She had to watch for other cars, she had to watch lights, she had to watch for pedestrians in the crosswalk she was going to enter. She could not reasonably expect that cars coming toward her would not stop. She could not foresee that one of them would speed up to a furious speed, but when this became apparent she stopped very quickly. She gave the speeding car three quarters of the lane it was in plus a whole lane to its right and she stopped before it got there. In my view, [the left turning driver’s] conduct was as close to perfect as most driver's are likely to get.
(Uyeyama (Guardian ad litem of) v. Wittenberg,  BCJ No 1883 at para. 52 (CA) (QL)).
Aikins J.A., also concurring, commented on the fact that the oncoming car would have been a significant distance away from the intersection at the time the light changed to yellow and that the left turning driver could not be found at fault for not realizing the speed of the oncoming car:
The action, going from about two hundred feet from the intersection, must have taken place in about three seconds at the speeds with which we are concerned. That is a very short space of time indeed for a person with obligations in driving other than watching the cars coming to see, appreciate and act. I do not think it is reasonable to suppose that she could have stopped earlier than she did and I agree entirely with what Mr. Justice Seaton has said, that this driver dealt with a very difficult situation with skill, and I think with proper care.
(Uyeyama (Guardian ad litem of) v. Wittenberg,  BCJ No 1883 at para. 56 (CA) (QL)).
In Morgan v. Hauck, 1988 CanLII 2846 (BCCA)the oncoming driver ran a red light. A quarter of a mile before the intersection the oncoming driver had passed under an amber flashing warning light which warns drivers that the light ahead which is currently green is about to change to amber. Instead of slowing down after seeing the amber flashing lights, the oncoming driver, who was in a hurry, accelerated and ended up entering the intersection after the light had already changed to red. The trial judge found the oncoming driver to be 90% at fault:
His excessive speed, his disobedience of the traffic light particularly after being warned about a pending change in that regard, leave the [oncoming driver’s] dominant position torn and tattered but not entirely destroyed. The [left turning driver] must bear some responsibility for the collision for had he been paying full attention to the [oncoming driver] he would have seen with [the oncoming driver’s] excessive speed that he was likely going to enter the intersection without stopping. The [left turning driver] ought to have stopped, or at least placed himself in the position to protect himself from the wrongful acts of the [oncoming driver]. Liability is apportioned 90% and 10% in favour of the [left turning driver].
(Morgan v. Hauck, 1988 CanLII 2846 at para. 8 (BCCA), citing the trial judge in that case).
The trial judgment was upheld on appeal. Esson J.A. explained that oncoming drivers must be aware that other drivers may be waiting to turn left as the lights change because on busy roads that may be their only opportunity to do so:
[A] driver making a left turn across a major highway such as this is under a very heavy duty of care; an onus to exercise great care. That is because it is an inherently dangerous manoeuver… It is, I think, a matter of common knowledge that generally speaking it is not possible to make a left turn across a busy north-south highway of this kind except during the period of pause after the north-south traffic has stopped and before the east-west traffic begins.
Because the situation is inherently dangerous, there is also a heavy onus on the traffic proceeding through the intersection. In my view the serious, I would say flagrant, fault was that of the [oncoming driver], who upon seeing the two amber warning lights speeded up his vehicle, already traveling at the speed limit, and entered the intersection against a red light. That I would describe as gross negligence in the old terminology. I stress this because I think it is common knowledge that [left turning as the lights change] is something which is happening with greater and greater frequency in this province. I think it is time, therefore, to emphasize the heavy onus which rests upon drivers approaching signals of this kind [i.e. amber flashing signals a quarter mile before the intersection] to make due allowance for the possibility that there will be a vehicle seeking to make a turn such as the [left turning vehicle] was making on this day. Their clear duty is to comply with the warning lights; and to not “run the red”.
(Morgan v. Hauck, 1988 CanLII 2846 at para. 13-14 (BCCA)).
Brucks v. Caslavsky, 1994 CanLII 3116 (BCCA) was another left turn case considered by the British Columbia Court of Appeal:
This case was one of a driver running a yellow or red light and colliding with a vehicle which was turning left after having waited to the end of the amber phase for oncoming vehicles to pass through the intersection.
(Brucks v. Caslavsky, 1994 CanLII 3116 at para. 3 (BCCA)).
According to the evidence of two independent witnesses the oncoming driver was driving fast, and perhaps speeding up, and entered the intersection either at the very end of the amber phase, or perhaps as the light facing him had just changed to red. The left turning driver had testified on cross-examination that he had seen the oncoming car but had assumed that it would stop because, based on the left turner’s driving experience, he thought that the oncoming car had enough time to stop. The jury found the driver of the oncoming vehicle to be 100% liable. The Court of Appeal confirmed that a left turning driver is entitled to assume that the oncoming driver will obey the law until the left turning driver realizes that the oncoming driver will disobey the law:
In this, as in other situations, a driver is entitled, in my view, to assume that others will obey the rules of the road, and until the contrary becomes apparent to rely on that assumption in deciding whether or not an oncoming vehicle constitutes an “immediate hazard”. The principle has been many times stated and was put many years ago by Lord Atkinson, giving the judgment of the Judicial Committee in Toronto Railway Company v. King et al.,  A.C. 260 (at 269), in these terms:
. . . traffic in the streets would be impossible if the driver of each vehicle did not proceed more or less on the assumption that the drivers of all other vehicles will do what it is their duty to do, namely, observe the rules regulating the traffic of the streets.
(Brucks v. Caslavsky, 1994 CanLII 3116 at para. 10 (BCCA)).
In Kokkinis v. Hall, 1996 CanLII 2404 (BCCA) an oncoming driver entered the intersection on a late yellow or a red light. There was also evidence that the oncoming driver was speeding. After noticing that the light had turned yellow, and as she was commencing her turn, the left turner diverted her attention from oncoming traffic to check whether the transverse traffic was about to “jump” the red light that it had been waiting on. The trial judge found that the oncoming driver could have stopped safely, but that the left turning driver was also at fault. Because he was unable to accurately allocate fault between the two drivers, the trial judge apportioned liability equally. In overturning that decision and finding the oncoming driver 100% liable the British Columbia Court of Appeal confirmed that left turning drivers are generally entitled to assume that oncoming drivers will stop and not speed through the intersection in disobeyance of traffic signals:
This court [in Brucks] rejected the argument that the onus placed [on left turning drivers by s.174 of the MVA] is “absolute” and that in deciding whether an oncoming car constitutes an “immediate hazard”, a left-turning driver must consider the possibility that any oncoming motorist may intend to speed through an intersection and disobey the traffic signal.
(Kokkinis v. Hall, 1996 CanLII 2404 at para. 7 (BCCA)).
The British Columbia Court of Appeal held that the left turning driver could not be faulted for diverting her attention away from the oncoming car as she commenced her turn and that she was not required to wait until all oncoming cars had come to a stop:
[The question is whether the left turner in this case] should be faulted for diverting her attention momentarily from oncoming traffic to check cross traffic at the point in time in question, i.e., as she prepared to start her turn - to see if any of those cars had jumped the light or were going to pose a threat to her turn. Was this an unreasonable or careless thing to do? I think not, given both the realities of the situation (which of course occurred over only a few seconds) and past decisions of this Court that have imposed on left-turning drivers the duty to be aware not only of oncoming traffic, but also of cross traffic, pedestrians, and whatever else may be present in the intersection. To say that the [the left turner] can be found at fault because she relied on the assumption that [the oncoming driver] would stop, and because she checked cross-traffic, would in my view subvert the duty on [the oncoming driver] to bring his vehicle to a safe stop at the amber light as the other traffic did. An amber light is not, as the current witticism suggests, a signal to accelerate or to pass traffic that is slowing to a stop. Indeed, as Mr. Justice Esson noted in Uyeyama [on a busy street] an amber is likely the only time one can complete a left turn. Drivers approaching intersections must expect that this will be occurring. Putting a burden on a left-turning driver to wait until he or she sees that all approaching drivers have stopped would, in my view, bring traffic to a standstill. We should not endorse such a result.
(Kokkinis v. Hall, 1996 CanLII 2404 at para. 10 (BCCA)).
The Court of Appeal in Kokkinis v. Hall, 1996 CanLII 2404 (BCCA) held that the trial judge had made an error of law in apportioning liability equally and allowed the appeal, finding the oncoming driver 100% liable.
Despite the foregoing, in some cases left turners have been found liable even though the oncoming driver ran a red light. For example, in Hoong v. Munday, 2005 BCPC 542 the oncoming driver entered the intersection on a red light and collided with a left turning driver who failed to check for traffic in the oncoming curb lane:
[The left turning driver] decided to proceed with making the turn purely based on the fact that the traffic signal had changed to red without paying attention to the traffic condition from the curb lane. Without knowing that information, [the oncoming driver was not] in a position to properly assess whether the approach of the [oncoming] vehicle constituted an immediate hazard.
While a red traffic light does normally mean that no through traffic should proceed to cross the intersection, it does not negate their obligation, as the servient driver, to only proceed to complete the turn if it can be done safely.
(Hoong v. Munday, 2005 BCPC 542 at paras. 21-22).
The court in Hoong v. Munday, 2005 BCPC 542 found the drivers equally at fault i.e. there was a 50/50 split in liability.
In Basi v. Buttar, 2010 BCSC 9 the defendant turned left in front of the plaintiff and the plaintiff swerved to avoid a collision, but lost control of her vehicle and was involved in a single vehicle accident. The defendant was found to have turned left when the plaintiff was an immediate hazard, and the defendant was found 100% liable.