A straightforward plan to follow state statute and prohibit the use of center turn lanes as merge lanes in Carthage ran into a snag last week — the state statute doesn’t prohibit the use of the center lane as a merge lane.

A straightforward plan to follow state statute and prohibit the use of center turn lanes as merge lanes in Carthage ran into a snag last week — the state statute doesn’t prohibit the use of the center lane as a merge lane.

Council Member Jim Swatzenbarg pointed this out at last week’s Carthage City Council meeting when he told the council that he would oppose the proposed ordinance as written because it would harm traffic flow in places like South Grand Avenue at George E. Phelps Boulevard.

After meeting for more than an hour on Tuesday at the Carthage Fire Station, the Council’s Public Safety Committee agreed with Swatzenbarg and voted to amend the ordinance read at the Sept. 11 meeting to the same wording as in the state statute.

It was not clear whether the ordinance would be amended and passed at the Sept. 25 meeting or whether passage would be delayed until Oct. 9.

Two words
Swatzenbarg pointed to two words in the state statute governing center turn lane use. Under Chapter 300.215, paragraph 4, subsection b: “A vehicle shall not be driven in the lane except when preparing for or making a left turn from or into the roadway or when preparing for or making a u-turn when otherwise permitted by law.”

The words “or into the roadway” mean that the statute allows a driver, trying to turn left from a private drive or crossing street, to pull into the center turn lane to cross one lane of traffic, then wait there for a gap in the traffic the driver is trying to merge with and pull out.

“Their purpose is to enhance traffic flow both on the street that the lines are painted and on cross traffic coming from private parking lots or cross streets,” Swatzenbarg said at the Sept. 11 city council meeting. “The purpose is, if you’re coming off of George E. Phelps going east and you want to turn north onto Grand at 3:15 in the afternoon, you don’t have to wait for simultaneous breaks in traffic in both directions. It allows you to turn into that center lane and merge. We’re going to eliminate that ability to turn into that center lane, with the wording that we have, to then merge into traffic.”

At Tuesday’s Public Safety Committee meeting, Carthage Police Chief Greg Dagnan said he had not read that state statute that way and was surprised when Swatzenbarg brought this up to him.

“I go to all the traffic safety summits, the DWI summits and clearly, using a center-designated left turn lane as a merge lane or acceleration lane is a huge cause of accidents,” Dagnan told the Public Safety Committee.

“The research that was presented to me, I had no reason to doubt it because that’s what I’ve been told for 23 years. Well, when Councilman Swatzenbarger pointed out these two words, I thought, yeah, you might be able to read it that way.”

Dagnan said he called some state agencies, like the Missouri Department of Transportation and the Missouri State Highway Patrol and, initially, they said no, using a center turn lane is illegal.

“But I said what about those two words,” Dagnan said. “And I kept getting calls back and they said, actually we’ve called our legal council and that is legal to use it as a merge lane.”

Proper lane use
Dagnan said the state statute allows using the lane as a merge lane, but it does not allow drivers to accelerate into traffic using the lane.
The very next line in the statute, subsection c, says vehicles cannot be driven for a distance of more than 500 feet in the center lane.

Dagnan said accidents are happening on River Street in front of the high school because drivers, mostly students pulling out of the parking lot, are turning north on River directly into the center lane to get around a line of traffic waiting at the stop sign to go straight at Airport Drive and River, to turn west on Airport Drive. That driver will run into a driver using the center turn lane properly, traveling south and pulling into the lane to turn left into the high school parking lot.

Dagnan said there is no city ordinance addressing the use of the center turn lane and adopting the ordinance as written in the state statute will still clarify the situation for officers.

Dagnan said Swatzenbarg is also correct in saying the driver’s handbook in Missouri is incorrect in saying it’s illegal to use the center turn lane as a merge lane.

“You get both sides of it on Grand Avenue,” Dagnan said “You get the people who say if that were not a merge lane, I’d never get anywhere after 3 p.m. and you get the people who are just really mad that people are using it as a merge lane and they’ll wait forever, so this would somewhat clarify things. To me, since we don’t have anything that regulates the center left turn lane, at least this would clarify it to our officers how it is supposed to be used, because right now, there is no guidance for them at all.”

The committee agreed and voted to amend the ordinance first read at last week’s council meeting to follow the state statute.