Failure to Signal When Required

Under G.S. 20-154(a), “before starting, stopping or turning from a direct line [, a driver] shall first see that such movement can be made in safety . . . and whenever the operation of any other vehicle may be affected by such movement, shall give a signal as required” by law. A violation of this statute is usually called “unsafe movement,” but I’ll call it failure to signal when required. The court of appeals just decided a case in this area that’s worth noting.

First, a little background. In State v. Ivey, 360 N.C. 562 (2006), an officer, following “some distance directly behind the [defendant’s] automobile, saw defendant come to a complete stop at a T-intersection and then make a right turn without signaling. A concrete median at the T-intersection blocked a left turn, so that . . . [the] defendant had no choice but to turn right.” The officer stopped the defendant for failure to signal when required, even though “[t]here [was] no indication that any other automobile or pedestrian traffic which might have been in the area would have been affected by defendant’s operation of the vehicle.” During the stop, the officer obtained the defendant’s consent to search his vehicle. The officer found a gun in the vehicle, which led to weapons charges against the defendant. The defendant moved to suppress, contesting the validity of the stop. The issue eventually reached the state supreme court, which ruled for the defendant, holding that (1) “unless the operation of some other vehicle may be affected by” a turn, there is no duty to signal before turning, and (2) because the defendant was required to stop, then turn right at the intersection, and because the officer was likewise required to stop, then turn right, no vehicle was affected by the defendant’s failure to signal.

The court later decided State v. Styles, 362 N.C. 412 (2008), in which an officer stopped the defendant for failure to signal when required after the defendant changed lanes “immediately in front of” the officer. Without extensive analysis, the majority stated that “changing lanes immediately in front of another vehicle may affect the operation of the trailing vehicle.” The dissent disagreed, arguing equally briefly that the mere fact that one vehicle changes lanes immediately in front of another vehicle does not necessarily affect the operation of the following vehicle.

Last week, the court of appeals decided State v. McRae. An officer was following “directly behind” the defendant’s car in an area where there was a “medium level of traffic” when the defendant turned into a gas station without signaling. The officer stopped the defendant for failure to signal when required. (There was another possible basis for the stop, too, but it isn’t relevant to this post.) As to whether the stop was justified, the court of appeals reasoned, “[i]n this case . . . as in Styles, defendant was traveling, before his turn, in a through lane with ‘medium’ traffic and was a short distance in front of the police officer. . . [so] the failure to use a turn signal could have affected another motor vehicle.”

McRae does seem indistinguishable from Styles: if changing lanes in front of a car can affect the trailing car, certainly turning out of a through lane in front of a car can do the same. I wanted to mention the case for two reasons. First, it’s a convenient opportunity to summarize the law in this area. Second, I think there’s probably a “best practices” lesson here. Ideally, the prosecutor would have the officer testify that as a result of the defendant’s turn, the officer — or the driver of another vehicle, in an appropriate case — was forced to slow down, steer around the defendant, or otherwise alter his driving. Absent such testimony, I can imagine cases getting bogged down in disputes about how far back the officer was, i.e., whether he was “immediately” behind the defendant or further back, and  whether there really could have been an impact on his driving at various distances.

16 comments on “Failure to Signal When Required

  1. Would this apply if a vehicle was waiting to pull out from a side street on the right, and the defendant vehicle failed to signal to turn onto the same street and if he had signaled then the other vehicle would have been ale to pull out sooner? It seems by causing them to wait longer, then they have “affected”.


    • The driver at the intersecting roadway should never assume that the driver on the thru street is going to turn into the intersecting street. Even though said driver may be signalling a turn. Though there is a recommended distance to signal before turning, most drivers either signal too much in advance or not enough.

  2. In the McRae case, the officer would still have had to slow down, steer around etc. even if McRae used a signal. What is the effect, other than not surprising the following driver? Is there a net difference in the following driver’s actions either way?

  3. Why is there a epicemic of drivers in NC violating mandatory turn signal laws?

    • Why do the speed,tailgate,weave in a long snake of high speed vehicles? Because they are under the dillusion they are NASCAR drivers.

      • YES. This. I hate living–and especially, driving!–driving in this awful state.

  4. I was issued a failure to signal ticket too. Although, The officer was in the median while I was traveling at a slow speed when I failed to used my signal to turn into the gas station. After playing the incident in my head, I can safely conclude that my failure to signal did not affect any other vehcile’s ability to operate since there was no vehicle behind me, and the officer would have to wait for me to pass anyway if I was to continue down the road. So was my failure to signal justified, then?

  5. I can see such cases bogging down over the language of the statute as it’s very subjective and implies that the decision as to whether any turn or movement of a vehicle can be made safely lies solely in the judgment of the driver just for starters. Secondly; the decision would also lie in the judgment of any witnessing police officer who’s opinions may differ than that of the turning driver. In the instant case of turning into a gas station, it hardly seems possible that said turn would have effected the officers forward progress if he/she was directly behind the turning vehicle. The driver of the turning vehicle almost certainly would have had to slow down and step on the brakes before making the turn, and therefore, the turning vehicles brake lights would have amply signaled the officers need to slow down as well. One could plausibly argue that it was the stepping on the brakes and slowing down prior to the turn that effected the officers forward progress. Once again it seems to me that this was probably a Friday or Saturday night and the officer was out seeking probable cause to stop more drivers than normal in a pursuit to catch impaired drivers. Chances are the officer might never have stopped this individual for said offense had it not been a weekend night. Quite frankly, it also seems like the legislation dropped the ball on this one by making a statute with such ambiguous language in such a subjective manner. Why didn’t they simply require that all turns must be signaled properly before being made?

    • How can we demand the NC State legislature change the law, to ALWAYS use your indicator(s) before changing lanes and/or turn off the road onto another street? Too many times we see people on a mobile telephone driving with one hand and unable to use their turn signal(s). How many people need to get hurt or die, because our legislators did not do their job? Nearly all other states have turn signals laws and furthermore prohibit the use of a mobile telephone when driving. Statistics proof that most drivers are morons and have no common sense.

  6. Several thoughts; not using turn signals should not cause accidents, it’s for convenience. Brake lights should signal drivers behind you that you are slowing or stopping. I have seen where turn signals that are left on (for whatever reason) cause more problems than drivers not using signals. Using cell phones is a completely different subject, even though I use my phone while driving I agree that is becoming the biggest factor for cause of accidents. Comes down to people need to use common sense when driving. People without common sense should not be allowed to drive.

    • It absolutely does cause accidents. One instance: When two vehicles attempt to change lanes and move in to the same spot without signaling. If turn signals are not used, it should not be necessary for vehicles registered in NC to be equipped with turn signals. May be there should be a case filed for removing the necessity of functioning turn signals in order for a vehicle to pass state inspection.

    • Common sense tells me to use my turn signal.

      • Travis, I’m with you, Unfortunately from what I see on NC roads common sense is absent in 50% (maybe higher) of people behind a steering wheel. Common sense would tell me to single every move your going to make just out of common courtesy to your fellow drivers. Don’t get me started on Common Courtesy. Not enough space here to complain about that!

    • No, it’s all about defensive driving and common courtesy. Signals should be used for any turns and lane changes, period.

      • I’m at the point where I use my turn signal in crowded parking lots so as not to have to guess what the other driver, who’s not signaling, is doing. I’ve even used my turn signal while in a parking deck. I would guess that the same rule of law applies to parking lots and garages as they do on city streets. The worst offenders seem to be drivers on their cell phones and lazy asses. For guys who drive big trucks like Rams and F150’s it’s not manly to signal a turn.

  7. I recently moved to Tennessee from Michigan and one of the first things I noticed was very few people use turn signals down here , even the cops don’t