What I learned about turning left in online traffic school


Traffic backs up on Ogden just east of La Grange Ave. (Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune)

Fellow drivers, please take the following brief quiz.

When you approach a green light, intending to turn left, you should:

1. Pull into the intersection and wait until it is safe to turn, thereby allowing the cars behind you a better chance of also turning before the light is red.

2. Wait at the stop line, proceeding only when it's safe to turn, thereby annoying the drivers behind you who want to make that light too.

3. Stomp on the accelerator, pound on the horn and make that @#$%!^& turn no matter what.

I've been putting this question to people lately, curious to see if they're as surprised as I was when I recently discovered the correct response.

Almost all have replied like the woman who said, "Number one. And I hate the people who choose number two."

And the correct answer is?

Before I tell you, let me explain how I came to know. A while back, I turned right in front of an interminably stopped city bus. Please. No more reprimands needed. I was wrong. I've been punished.

My punishment included a fine and, as a means to absolution, the four-hour online traffic safety course administered by Northwestern University's Center for Public Safety.

The course was tedious but enlightening. Here's one thing it taught me:

"You should not proceed into the intersection on a green light until you see that you can safely make your turn."

What? Why not just say you'll never make a left turn in Chicago again, sucker?

Since my safety school graduation, I've done my best, however, to follow the injunction. At traffic lights, I've refused to advance into the intersection until a) I can see I have the space to turn or b) the light turns yellow and it's clear that oncoming drivers are going to stop.

Frankly, it's never clear that the oncoming drivers are going to stop, but Chicago driving, as a great writer once said about second marriages, is the triumph of hope over experience.

In my new penitent's mode, I've waited with heroic patience before proceeding into any busy intersection, braced against the horns hammering on my tail.

Stoically, I've tried to accept these honks as karmic retribution for the times I honked — just a polite tap or two, honest — at the bozos who refused to move into the bleepin' intersection.

I used to wonder who those bozos were. Now I understand. They're my fellow graduates.

But as the days have passed, my tolerance for the honking has frayed, and I've faced an existential question: Is there any point in obeying a rule almost nobody else obeys or even knows?

To resolve this conundrum, I called the Northwestern University Center for Public Safety to ask: Are we really supposed to hang back from the intersection at a green light?