Pulling a U-Turn in St. Louis City? You Might Be Breaking the Law


A couple months back, while driving north along Tucker Boulevard in downtown St. Louis, I pulled an illegal U-turn right in front of a cop. A very observant cop. Considering I was supposed to be interviewing said cop that very day, it was not my finest moment as either a driver or a journalist. 

By itself, I'll agree, that's not much of a story. Yet I was somewhat shocked when, after I picked up officer Don Re there at the police academy, he explained that it was actually against the law to pull a U-turn from a signalized intersection. I'd made my U from the left-turn lane on Tucker where it meets Clark, and I'd chosen the intersection precisely because I thought it was legal. And beyond that, it felt like the safest move at the time: I had ample space to watch for traffic and, hell, there was a nice green arrow just for my lane! What could be wrong with that?

Thankfully, Officer Re let me off with a warning. But I've got a hunch that other St. Louis drivers may be shaking their heads in confusion at the city's U-turn laws, and they aren't alone.

So I decided to do some digging. Where are U-turns permitted in St. Louis? And are intersections really verboten?

First, here's what state law says about U-turns, emphasis mine: 

2. It shall be unlawful for the driver of any vehicle to turn such vehicle so as to proceed in the opposite direction at any intersection controlled by a traffic signal or police officer; nor shall such turn be made at any place unless the movement can be made in safety and without interfering with other traffic. The driver of a vehicle shall not turn such vehicle around so as to proceed in the opposite direction upon any curve or upon the approach to or near the crest of a grade, or at any place upon a roadway where such vehicle cannot be seen by the driver of any other vehicle approaching from either direction along the roadway within a distance of three hundred feet, or where the same may create a traffic hazard.

3. No vehicle in a residence district shall be turned left across the roadway or so as to proceed in the opposite direction when any other vehicle is approaching from either direction where the same may create a traffic hazard.

Yikes. The statute seemed to leave no wiggle room for my supposed "safe" U-turn. Still, this felt counterintuitive. Why forbid all U-turns from intersections? My wounded pride demanded further investigation. 

A call to Jeanne Olubogun, the district traffic engineer at the Missouri Department of Transportation, revealed that local ordinances can actually override the state statute on U-turns. She said I would have to look in St. Louis' law books to get the real scoop.

And this is what St. Louis city ordinances have to say about the proper place to whip a U-y: 

The driver of any vehicle shall not turn vehicle so as to proceed in the opposite direction upon any street in the central traffic district, at any intersection controlled by a traffic-control signal, or where posted.

This left me only more puzzled, especially the reference to "or where posted" at the end. (City ordinances define the central traffic district as "the area bounded by the north curb line of Cole Street, the south curb line of Spruce Street, the east curb line of Third Street and Memorial Drive, and the west curb line of Twelfth Street." Basically, anything east of Tucker in downtown.)

So I reached out to Deanna Venker, the commissioner of traffic for St. Louis city. She told me that the "or where posted" part  simply means the city can put up signs at intersections where dumb drivers (like me) keep making dumb U-turn decisions. 

"Sometimes you have to spell it out for everybody, but the sign does not have to be posted," Venker says. "It’s just not allowed. Don’t do at a signalized intersection."

According to Venker, there are good reasons for the law. 

 "You could have pedestrians coming at you and don't know what other movements are permissible at that signal," she says. "Even at a left turn you’d have the risk that you were turning into somebody who is also turning into that lane, so it’s an unsafe movement." 

So, to sum it up: Don't pull a U-turn at any signalized intersection in St. Louis city, and definitely avoid pulling U-turns on any street downtown within the aforementioned central traffic district. They're illegal at intersections across the city, but especially illegal there.

Otherwise, as long as you're not blocking traffic, pick a safe moment and go for it. Just to be extra safe, though, maybe try to find a place where the cops aren't watching?

(PS: And while we're at it, can we all take a moment and learn how to use a damn turn signal? Thanks.)

Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at @D_ Towski. E-mail the author at Danny.Wicentowski@RiverfrontTimes.com

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