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Left out: Why LA is the city of unprotected left turns

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Anyone who has navigated L.A. traffic knows the horror of the unprotected left turn. It's almost an Angeleno rite of passage.

Anyone who has navigated LA traffic knows the horror of ... the unprotected left turn.

Via Google images

You pull up to the intersection. You indicate left. And you wait. And wait. And then turn ... and hope you don't get hit by oncoming traffic.

It's such a point of dread, in fact, that the popular navigation app, Waze introduced a feature to minimize left turns on routes. So why is L.A. the land of the unprotected left turn? For that, A Martinez spoke to Nathan Masters, host of KCET's "Lost LA."

Interview Highlights

Take us through the history of the left turn here in LA.

"There really were no formal rules about left turns until the 1920s. In fact, it wasn't until the 1920s that the state decided it wanted to start regulating how people, including bicyclists and pedestrians who used the roadway.

When they started promulgating these rules they had to actually tell people, 'Hey, you need to signal your intention to make a left turn by sticking your arm out the window.' That was back before we had left turn signals...

That was a big moment, when there were formal rules about how you can make a left turn and when you could make a left turn. The biggest changes actually came in the 1950s. That was when the city started installing what are called left turn pockets, which are places where you could wait to make a left turn before there's a break in oncoming traffic.

They also installed some of the first left turn signals which gave you a protected left turn. You know, exclusive use of the intersection to make a left turn for a short amount of time. In 1957, there was a major change in the law of left turns. Prior to that if you were at the intersection have the right of way to make a left turn, even if there's oncoming traffic as long as there's no imminent threat that you're going to be hit by somebody or hit somebody, you're allowed to make a left turn. After that, you had to wait till there was a big break in traffic."

At first, L.A. motorists had trouble with the left-hand turn and the city tried to engineer it out of existence, what were some of the experimental things they tried? 

"Well, there were a few practices that stand out. One of them was called 'darting'... I've seen people practice it to this day. The light turns green and suddenly, you gun it...

The automobile club had to create a big public advocacy program to convince people to stop doing that. Drivers also would make left turns from the right lane, in the 1920s without any regard for what traffic might be coming up on your left and then other drivers would make a big grand 270-degree tour of the intersection, you know, a huge wide turn for no reason really. These were all big problems that the auto club and the city and police officers had to correct."

Orange County is L.A.’s not too far off neighbor and yet their streets look very different from ours. Why is that?

"One of the biggest differences is there are just a lot more protected left turn signals. A couple reasons for that: Left turn signals weren't introduced until the 1950s. Well, most of Orange County was built after the 1950s, including its transportation infrastructure. And then of course there's also the fact that much of Orange County consists of these master plan communities and they were able to plan ahead, they were able to build roadways that would have the capacity to handle future growth." 

To hear the full interview, click the blue play button above.

(Answers have been edited for clarity.)

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