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A car turns left, which is considered one of the most hazardous driving maneuvers, as a pedestrian crosses the street at King Street and Spadina Avenue in Toronto on Feb. 28, 2013.Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail

To ensure safer rides, Uber recently announced it will be sending its drivers on routes with fewer left turns. But for any driver, avoiding lefts at busy intersections can be the right idea, safety experts said.

“A left-hand turn crash is the most dangerous crash to be involved in for both parties,” said Angelo DiCicco, general manager at the Ontario Safety League, a Mississauga-based nonprofit focusing on driver education. “But not all left turns are created equal.”

In Canada in 2019, the most recent year with statistics in the National Collision Database, there were 5,855 collisions involving a left turn – with 8,550 injuries and 41 deaths.

“Left turns are typically against the flow of traffic, which prompts more opportunity for collisions and higher risks of at-speed collisions,” said Lewis Smith, a manager with the Canada Safety Council (CSC), an Ottawa-based not-for-profit.

The most dangerous left turns are at an uncontrolled intersection. The safest are at controlled intersections with a dedicated turning lane and a left turn arrow.

“Unless the turn is being made at a signalled intersection with a dedicated left turn light, the timing of the turn is left to the driver’s discretion,” Smith said. “This can lead to some tight windows and risky decisions being taken by the driver if they are rushing.”

DiCicco said the way to avoid left turns is by planning a less risky route in advance. That’s what Uber is doing.

“With just a few minor adjustments to GPS routing that have little to no impact on trip time, drivers who use Uber’s in-app navigation can enjoy a less stressful driving experience,” Sachin Kansal, Uber’s vice-president of product management said in a post on the company’s website last week. In that post, Uber cited a U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report that showed 22 per cent of crashes involve a vehicle making a left turn at an intersection. By contrast, 1 per cent involve a vehicle making a right turn.

Uber drivers don’t have to follow the suggested route, the company said in an e-mail.

Uber isn’t the only company choosing routes with fewer lefts – UPS has been doing it since 2004 and plenty of other companies with fleets are following, DiCicco said. “What companies do now is they plan their routes based on actual data from their fleets – arrival times, number of kilometres, fuel economy and, most importantly, crashes.”

One way to avoid left turns at uncontrolled intersections is to take multiple right turns to get to a destination, he said.

“Two rights don’t make a wrong, but three rights make a left,” DiCicco said. “Although it seems counter-intuitive because of the amount of travel kilometres, the data [from commercial fleets] shows that you’re less likely to be involved in a crash, it usually takes less time and you get better fuel economy.”

Taking more right turns to loop around and get to the same destination can save time because you’re not waiting to turn left at busy intersections, he added. It’s something any driver can do.

But some right turns can be more dangerous than others, too, DiCicco said.

“Turning right on a red light at a busy intersection at rush hour can be much more dangerous than a right at an all-way stop,” he said. “And if your right turn [detour] takes you into a school zone when school is on or residential areas full of kids with bikes, that might not be safer [than turning left].”

That’s why route-planners need to look at crash data, DiCicco said.

“They might think it’s a really good route because it saves four minutes, but they don’t take into account offloading the risk into a residential area,” he said.

While companies’ navigation programs can easily send commercial drivers on a route that avoids left turns, it’s a lot to expect from an ordinary driver, CSC’s Smith said. “For your average driver, it could be a hard sell to suggest a longer route.”

Plus, few GPS apps offer the option of choosing fewer left turns. Waze, the crowd-sourced navigation app owned by Google-parent company Alphabet, announced in 2016 it was offering routes with fewer left turns in Los Angeles. But now, the app doesn’t offer the option anywhere, said a spokesman, who didn’t provide a reason.

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