California Motor Vehicle Code Section 21801 - Interpretation
Section 21801 provides: "(a) The driver of a vehicle intending to turn to the left or to complete a U-turn upon a highway, or to turn left into public or private property, or an alley, shall yield the right-of-way to all vehicles approaching from the opposite direction which are close enough to constitute a hazard at any time during the turning movement, and shall continue to yield the right-of-way to the approaching vehicles until the left turn or U-turn can be made with reasonable safety. (b) A driver having yielded ... and having given a signal when and as required by this code, may turn left ... and the drivers of vehicles approaching the intersection or the entrance to the property or alley from the opposite direction shall yield the right-of-way to the turning vehicle."
In California, Vehicle Code section 21801 governs the respective duties of drivers of left-turning vehicles and those of approaching vehicles. That statute imposes upon the left-turning driver the duty to ascertain, before proceeding across each successive lane of oncoming traffic, if any approaching vehicle constitutes a hazard. ( 21801, subd. (a).)
Section 21801, subdivision (a) has been construed to mean that "if the oncoming vehicle in the lane closest to the left turning vehicle surrenders its right of way by indicating to the operator of the left turning vehicle that it desires him to proceed, such operator may not proceed beyond that first lane of traffic, now effectively blocked by the waiving vehicle, if in fact other vehicles approaching in any of the other oncoming lanes will constitute a hazard to the left turning vehicle during the turning movement." (In re Kirk (1962) 202 Cal. App. 2d 288 at p. 291.)
Pursuant to subdivision (b) of section 21801, the burden shifts to oncoming traffic to yield the right-of-way to the left-turning driver only where the left-turning driver has complied with section 21801, subdivision (a) but is forced to stop midturn for some reason beyond the driver's control. (Id., subd. (b).)
In Kirk, the minor was declared a ward of the court as a result of having violated section 21801, subdivision (a) by failing, while making a left turn, to yield the right-of-way to a vehicle approaching from the opposite direction. The appellate court rejected the minor's argument that, because the driver in the lane closest to the minor's left-turning vehicle gave the minor the "go ahead signal," the vehicle approaching in the next oncoming lane did not constitute a hazard within the meaning of section 21801. (Kirk, supra, 202 Cal. App. 2d at p. 290.)
Subsequently, in Sesler v. Ghumman (1990) 219 Cal. App. 3d 218 at page 224, the court held:
"While a motorist may waive his or her own right-of-way, neither the law nor common sense dictates that the waiver applies to any other motorist."
In Sesler, the plaintiff was traveling south when he stopped his motorcycle in a left turn pocket and waited for traffic to clear in the three oncoming lanes; the cars in oncoming lanes 1 and 2 stopped and motioned for the plaintiff to proceed with his left-hand turn in front of them. Seeing no hazard in lane 3 (the lane closest to the curb), the plaintiff commenced his turn; but the defendant, who had been traveling north in lane 1, had moved to lane 3 to avoid the cars he saw stopped in front of him and he collided with the plaintiff in the intersection.
The trial court refused to give the following special instruction that the defendant had proposed: "If an oncoming vehicle in the lane closest to the left-turning vehicle surrenders its right-of-way by indicating to the operator of the left-turning vehicle that it desires him to proceed, such operator may not proceed beyond the first lane of traffic, now effectively blocked by the waiving vehicle, if in fact other vehicles approaching in any of the other oncoming lanes will constitute a hazard to the left-turning vehicle during the turning movement."
The Court of Appeal reversed, finding the failure to give the proffered instruction to be prejudicial error.
The appellate court reasoned the absence of the instruction allowed the Sesler plaintiff--the left-turning motorcycle rider--to argue, contrary to the law, that he had no duty to anticipate that other drivers would not yield the right-of-way. (Sesler, supra, 219 Cal. App. 3d at p. 222.)