How long do you have to signal before you can change lanes on a highway?

Written by Gregory Monte.


Signaling Before Turning

Most motor vehicle codes require drivers to signal before changing lanes on a highway – that much is clear.  These codes also clearly specify how far in advance the turn signal must be initiated.  For example, New York and New Jersey require 100 feet while in Pennsylvania it depends on the speed of the car (100 feet when driving 35 mph or less and 300 feet for higher speeds).

However, when you read the details about signaling, you will find that these same codes do not necessarily specify how long you must signal before you are allowed to move over to a new lane.

For example, New York’s Section 1163(a) appears to make a distinction between an actual turn and simply moving “right or left upon a roadway.”  If this apparent distinction is legitimate, then the 100 foot rule specified in the following subsection, 1163(b), also appears to only apply to actual turns, not lane switching:

 “A signal of intention to turn right or left when required shall be given continuously during not less than the last one hundred feet traveled by the vehicle before turning.”

While Pennsylvania’s Title 75, Section 3334 is written slightly differently (“move from one traffic lane to another”) the upshot appears to be the same – turning is a different act than switching lanes.


Beating a Ticket Based on a Technicality

Now, I do realize that this sounds like a petty difference in terminology, but the specific wording of a law matters.  As you will be aware if you read my blog on a regular basis, the nuances in the law provide technicalities which enable you to beat traffic tickets.  My son won his stop sign case in the Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas based on just such a technicality.  If you want to read about it, check out my two free PDFs which describe the strategy he followed.  I wrote them specifically to beat a stop sign ticket in Pennsylvania, but the method applies to all states and even other types of traffic tickets (like speeding).

In any case, it turns out that New York and Pennsylvania have interpreted the similar wording in the statutes on signaling in totally different ways.


The New York Signaling Rule

In People v. James, 17 Misc. 3d 623 – NY: City Court, Criminal Court 2007, the court specifically concludes that turning and moving are to be treated the same:

“Indeed, if ‘turn’ and ‘move’ are separate and distinct, triggering different rules, the paragraph would be rendered meaningless … the signaling requirement was not meant to apply only to actual ‘turns.’ On the contrary, the reasonable safety requirement and the signaling requirement apply to both ’turns’ and other vehicular ‘movements,’ such as lane changing.”


The Pennsylvania Signaling Rule

Contrast this with the conclusion of the Pennsylvania court case Com. v. Slattery, 139 A. 3d 221 – Pa: Superior Court  which distinguishes a turn from a move:

“… the language found throughout the remaining subsections of 3334 is consistent with the interpretation that the term before turning’ means before a vehicle makes a turn onto another roadway, not before a person changes lanes.” 

Regarding the need to signal for 100 feet before changing lanes, the judge in this case concluded that Trooper Panchik acted improperly when he pulled Slattery over, because the law doesn’t require a driver to signal for 100 feet just to change lanes:

“… Trooper Panchik initiated a traffic stop of Slattery’s Dodge Durango after he observed the vehicle make a lane change without signaling at least one hundred feet prior to making that lane change … Accordingly, the words of the statute are clear that the 100-foot rule applies to a vehicle turning, it is silent regarding the length that a signal must be activated prior to changing lanes.


Google Scholar is Invaluable

Traffic statutes, like all laws, can be difficult to read and interpret.  This is why my approach to beating tickets requires an extra step.  I make sure to check out all relevant case law that comments on the statute I am trying to understand.  Initially, I may interpret a law one way, but then I make sure to see what actual judges think. 

The best way to do this is to search on Google Scholar to find case law that supports your interpretation.  You can then use this information in court as precedent to bolster your case.  Judges live and die by precedent.  They don’t want to rule contrary to what others in their profession have already decided.  It is definitely worth your time and effort to do this research before you show up in court.  Knowing that you have precedent on your side will give you the confidence you need to prevail in the courtroom.

One thought on “How long do you have to signal before you can change lanes on a highway?

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