Turn Signal Requirements

In an earlier post I discussed Iowa’s statutory law regarding headlight use.  This time I’d like to discuss when the use of turn signals is required.  The law actually gives drivers a lot of leeway on turn signal use to the point that turn signals may almost be always optional.  But for safety concerns, especially for vehicles traveling behind you, there doesn’t seem to be any good reason to not use your turn signals, even when the law doesn’t mandate it.
Here are the Iowa Code sections that govern turn signal use:
Iowa Code 321.314  When signal required:
“No person shall turn a vehicle from a direct course upon a highway unless and until such movement can be made with reasonable safety and then only after giving a clearly audible signal by sounding the horn if any pedestrian may be affected by such movement or after giving an appropriate signal in the manner hereinafter provided in the event any other vehicle may be affected by such movement.” (emphasis added).
Iowa Code 321.315  Signal continuous:
“A signal of intention to turn right or left shall be given continuously during not less than the last one hundred feet traveled by the vehicle before turning when the speed limit is forty-five miles per hour or less and a continuous signal during not less than the last three hundred feet when the speed limit is in excess of forty-five miles per hour.”
The highlighted portion of Iowa Code 321.314 provides the leeway I mentioned.  Under section 321.314 drivers are only required to use turn signals when another vehicle may be affected by the turn.  That interpretation of 321.314 has been accepted by Iowa’s appellate courts on several occasions.  So, if you don’t believe that your turn will affect another vehicle, you have no legal obligation to signal.
Interestingly, although signaling a lane change is a common driving tactic taught by probably every driving instructor in Iowa, that’s not actually required by the Iowa Code.  In a 2009 decision (http://www.iowacourts.gov/court_of_appeals/Recent_Opinions/20090917/9-647.pdf) the Iowa Court of Appeals noted that Iowa does not seem to legally require the use of turn signals during land changes.  It’s just one of those things you do so other drivers have a clue about where you’re going and don’t crash into you when your vehicle suddenly appears in their lane without warning.
As I said, signaling your turns is always something you should do for safety reasons even if you technically don’t have to.  The Iowa Department of Transportation offers the following driving tips on turn signal use.  Most of IDOT’s tips won’t be found in the Iowa Code.  Rather, they’re just good, common sense tips meant to help keep everyone safe:
“Turn signals give other drivers time to react to your moves.  You should use your turn signals before you change lanes, turn right or left, merge into traffic, or park.
• Get into the habit of signaling every time you change direction. Signal even when you do not see anyone else around. It is easy to miss someone who needs to know what you are doing.
• Signal as early as you can. Try and signal at least three seconds before you make your move. You must signal at least 100 feet before a turn if the speed limit is 45 mph or less. If the speed limit is faster than 45 mph, you must signal at least 300 feet before you turn.
• Be careful that you do not signal too early. If there are streets, driveways or entrances between you and where you want to turn, wait until you have passed them to signal.
• If another vehicle is about to enter the street between you and where you plan to turn, wait until you have passed it to signal your turn. If you signal earlier, the other driver may think you plan to turn where that driver is and he/she might pull into your path.
• After you have made a turn or lane change, make sure your turn signal is off. After short turns, the signals may not turn off by themselves. Turn it off if it has not canceled by itself. If you do not, other drivers might think you plan to turn again.
A quick word about civil liability for personal injuries or wrongful death.  If you cause a car accident or motorcycle crash because you violate the Iowa Code’s rules for motor vehicles, especially if you’re found guilty or plead guilty to a citation, you’ll almost certainly be held liable for the accident.  But the Iowa Code merely provides a minimum standard of conduct; civil negligence law can require you to do more than the Iowa Code requires if it’s reasonable to expect you to do so.  Turn signal use is a good example of that — There’s many things you should do with your turn signals (as advised by IDOT) that the Iowa Code doesn’t actually require you to do.  Regardless, you may still be civilly liable for causing an accident if a court or  jury determines that you reasonably should have done more, such as signal a lane change, than the Iowa Code expressly requires.

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