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I live in Winnipeg and I can’t believe that U-turns are allowed here, regardless of speed limits. Where I learned to drive, elsewhere in Canada, U-turns weren’t done except maybe on a quiet country road and away from witnesses. It’s an unexpected manoeuvre to encounter. Unbelievably, there are 80 km/h intersections here where one has to brake when approaching a wide-swinging U-turner. Even they’re legal, are they safe? – Shawn

Here’s some straight talk about U-turns. Even if they’re legal where you live, you’re probably not in the right mind to make them safely.

“You usually make U-turns when you’re lost, you’ve missed your turn or you realize you’re going in the wrong direction,” said Mark Andrews, a traffic consultant and former Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) traffic inspector. “The psychology of U-turns is about panic: Your head is not in the game.”

If you’re frazzled because your GPS is droning at you to turn around or a not-so-helpful passenger is yelling that you missed the turn-off to the airport, you might not be clear-headed enough to make sure it’s safe to make a U-turn.

“You can make a U-turn and you can make it very safely, but you have to take a moment to ask whether a U-turn is the safest thing to do in that situation, regardless of what your GPS is telling you,” Andrews said. “Maybe there’s too much traffic – so, instead, you go around the block or turn around in a driveway.”

Also, even in places where U-turns are legal, a lot of drivers still think they’re illegal. That means some drivers make U-turns too quickly and speed away like they’re fleeing a crime scene “with a bag of cash in the back seat,” Andrews said.

Where they’re legal

So, what are the rules for U-turns? It depends where you live.

In Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and PEI, the rules are fairly straightforward – you can make a U-turn at any intersection, as long as you can make it safely and there’s no sign banning them.

There are some additional exceptions.

In Manitoba, for instance, you can’t make a U-turn on a curve or the crest of a hill. That’s also true in Ontario, where Section 143 of the Highway Traffic Act also bans U-turns at railway crossings, and within 150 metres of a bridge, tunnel or road.

“The signs usually make it pretty clear where you can’t do them,” Andrews says.

In Ontario in 2019, there were 96 convictions for illegal U-turns – those came with a $110-150 fine and two demerits.

In other provinces, the rules get trickier. For instance, British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan ban U-turns at intersections with traffic lights unless there’s a sign saying they’re allowed.

Cities also have their own rules. In Vancouver, for example, city bylaws ban U-turns almost everywhere.

Make sure it’s clear

Several provinces, including Manitoba, don’t specifically track whether U-turns are the cause of crashes.

But in Ontario, they’re responsible for about one per cent of all reported crashes, Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation (MTO) said. It didn’t give specific numbers – but in 2017, there were more than 209,000 total crashes in Ontario. That works out to more than 2,000 crashes involving U-turns.

“In OPP jurisdiction in Ontario, 250 people have been injured and six people have been killed in U-turn crashes in the last five years,” Andrews said. “About 20 years ago, a colleague of mine on the OPP had a [speeder] come through his radar, so he did a U-turn in front of a transport truck and it killed him.”

Does that mean you should be avoiding U-turns entirely? Not if they’re safe, police say.

“There’s no reason to advise not to [make U-turns], provided they are completed safely and do not obstruct traffic,” said Inspector Gord Spano, with Winnipeg police traffic division.

If you do make a U-turn, make sure you can see who’s coming in both directions, said Angelo DiCicco, a road safety consultant in Toronto.

“U-turns are best done when you have really clear visibility from front and behind and you’re cognizant of the turning radius of your vehicle,” DiCicco said.

If you’re not at an intersection, it might be easier to see if you pull over to the right and come to a complete stop before turning around, DiCicco said.

Stay in your lane

If you’re at an intersection and have a left-turning light, it’s safe to make a U-turn as long as you turn into the innermost lane.

“A lot of people make U-turns like they’re driving an 18-wheeler,” Andrews said. “Their turn is shaped like a light bulb and they drift into the other lane.”

The bottom line? If U-turns are allowed where you live, signal, take your time and don’t turn too wide.

“Everyone should go practice a U-turn at a large intersection to get that skill in your tool box,” DiCicco said. “Because at some point, you’re going to need to make a U-turn and you don’t want it to feel uncomfortable”

Have a driving question? Send it to globedrive@globeandmail.com. Canada’s a big place, so let us know where you are so we can find the answer for your city and province.

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