Q: I'll bet you didn't remember that the 10th anniversary of our win in the battle of the double-yellow line is almost here. I've been strongly tempted to begin the battle of late merge versus early merge, but for today, this will have to do: What is the meaning of the sign 'right turn signal'? Does it mean 'no turn on red'? How can it? The latest issue of the state Driver's Manual still says you can turn on red anywhere except where a sign specifically says 'no turn on red'. Does it mean there's going to be a green arrow there? If so, I'll see the arrow even without my glasses. I don't need the sign.
— Steve Kovach, Quakertown
A: "Right turn signal," the most confusing sign in the PennDOT showroom, is intended to alert motorists that a green-arrow phase applies to the lane beneath which the placard is posted. It's also supposed to clarify that the adjacent signal head applies to that lane alone, and should not be confused with the functions of nearby signal heads meant for traffic in other lanes.
The problem is, the phrasing of 'right turn signal' is as clear as used motor oil. I've suggested "green arrow signal" as a viable replacement, but neither PennDOT, nor the folks who control the federal Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices from which the sign derives, has taken me up on it.
In first gear, I guessed that the sign must be intended as a reminder for motorists to use their turn signals. Judging by the traffic that's pulled onto my email parking deck over the years, many people think it means "no turn on red." (And incidentally, though the Driver's Manual indicates that "no turn on red" is the only sign that prohibits proper right turns on red, PennDOT engineer Tom Walter contends that "no turns" also serves that function. "No turns" is relatively rare, but it seems to be growing less so, to the point where the Manual should be updated to include its applicability in this regard.)
Regarding the contentious issue of whether passing on a double-yellow line is prohibited in Pennsylvania, you're correct, Steve: You and Stephen Willey of Durham Township steered us in that direction nearly a decade ago, in July 2004.
At the time, I wrote, "At the starting line, the Warrior would have bet the keys to a new Porsche 911 that passing on a double-yellow line is flat-out illegal, in Pennsylvania or anywhere else." To my surprise, I discovered that that's not necessarily the case.
State police Lt. David V. Miller, then patrol-section commander of Troop M in Bethlehem, said that while it's highly inadvisable to pass on a double-yellow, technically it's not illegal unless "no passing zone" signs are posted — as required by law.
"Actually, I'm a little bit ambivalent about having this put in the paper," Miller said at the time, fearing it might prompt motorists to undertake dangerous passing maneuvers more often. But a double-yellow line alone represents only a cautionary warning that seeks to discourage passing, Miller said: "It's not illegal per se to pass on the double yellow."
Only where signs are duly posted as well — "do not pass" or "no passing zone" — is the force of law in effect. "A no-passing zone needs to be designated by signage" in addition to road paint, Miller said.
One of Miller's predecessors at Troop M, Theodore Kohuth, Whitehall Township's police chief in 2004, agreed with Miller.
At the time, PennDOT officials insisted that passing on the double-yellow is illegal regardless of signage, but internal PennDOT memos provided to you by your state senator, Steve, showed otherwise. As with Lt. Miller's reluctance to express his opinion publicly (though to his credit, he did so anyway), the PennDOT folks simply didn't want to seem to be endorsing double-yellow passing. That's not a bad instinct, but steering the public wrong never is the right government policy. If PennDOT officials feel the double-yellow should stand on its own, so to speak, they should ask the Legislature to change the law to say so.
A 2003 language change in the Driver's Manual supported the view through our windshields on this matter, Steve: In reference to the solid double-yellow line, the April version said, "Even if it is not marked 'no passing,' passing by traffic traveling in either direction is not allowed." The manual was updated that October to read, "A double yellow centerline indicates that you should not pass in either direction of travel."
However, that phrasing was dropped at the roadside at some point since then; the electronic version has reverted to the erroneous old language. That's unfortunate. The applicable section of the state Vehicle Code is 3307 (a), with the respective titles "No-passing zones" and "Establishment and marking." The final sentence: "Signs shall be in place to indicate the beginning and end of each no-passing zone."
Trooper Adam Reed, current state police spokesman in Harrisburg, agrees with the views of his predecessors. "Yes, it is legal to pass on a double-yellow unless it is marked" with signs, Reed said last week. "That's not something we recommend on a regular basis; [motorists should] pick and choose spots wisely" for safe passing, he said.
I still believe as I did a decade ago: By the letter of the law, it's legal to pass on a double-yellow line in the absence of the required accompanying signage. However, I do not myself, nor do I recommend, passing on a double-yellow in other than extenuating circumstances. The proverbial little old lady doing 40 in a 55 zone where most people go 60, and there's no conflicting traffic for a mile ahead, for example.
At the end of the road in any year, the real arbiters of this or most any traffic issue are the police officers who happen to witness your alleged violation. You can point out the phrasing of the Vehicle Code to them, and if you still get a ticket, subsequently to a judge or series of judges. If the system is functioning properly, your challenge should be upheld. But unfortunately, sometimes the letter of the law isn't worth the paper it's written on.
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