Vermont Drivers Are Expected to Use Turn Signals Even in Designated Turn-Only Lanes

By Robb Spensley

It is very common that drivers operating or waiting in a designated turn-only lane will NOT put on their turn signals, perhaps assuming that their intention to turn is clear enough. However, as established in recent Vermont Supreme Court Decision State v. Cook (google “2017-368 Vermont”), the failure to utilize your turn signal in a designated turn-only lane will now be considered adequate grounds for a police officer to pull someone over and ticket them. The Vermont Supreme Court has not previously decided this precise issue, with past decisions indicating that an actual turn signal may not be necessary when the lane designation clearly allows only one legal maneuver.

Some American States do not require a turn signal in a turn-only lane, but Vermont and many other States do. Police officers in Vermont are allowed by law to perform a traffic stop whenever they have a reasonable and articulable suspicion of a Vermont traffic violation, like speeding, or a crime, such as driving under the influence. The Vermont Supreme Court reached its recent decision in Cook primarily based upon the specific wording of Vermont’s turn-signal statute. 

The Vermont Supreme Court also cited safety issues to support the decision in Cook, reasoning for example that other drivers stopped at an intersection may not be able to identify that an opposing or nearby lane is a turn-only lane. One might speculate that snowstorms and low visibility situations may also worsen a driver’s ability to perceive the designated direction of a nearby lane. 

I do not expect that this type of traffic stop will become common in Vermont. However, if a Vermont police officer decides to perform a traffic stop based upon a driver’s failure to activate their turn signal within a designated turn-only lane, that traffic stop will be upheld and the turn-signal violation is ticketable.

Windshield obstruction law challenged in Vermont Supreme Court

Is a dangling air freshener from the rear view mirror illegal?  For 40 years in the State of Vermont a law has banned any such “obstructions”, a law that has opened the door for numerous traffic tickets and investigations by Vermont police officers.

The law as it stands right now states as follows:

“No person shall paste, stick, or paint advertising matter or other things on or over any transparent part of a motor vehicle windshield, vent windows, or side windows located immediately to the left and right of the operator, nor hang any object, other than a rear view mirror, in back of the windshield”.

However, there are numerous exceptions to the law that allow for stickers such as Vermont registration tags and other decals to be displayed on the windshield.

The argument before the Supreme Court is that an officer should not be allowed to pull over a motorist unless the item is actually obstructing the view of the driver, an objective viewpoint that could make it difficult for police to ticket any motorist for the infraction unless they had pulled the motorist over for a separate reason.

There is currently no timeline for when a decision will be made by the Supreme Court, but the discussion and opinion will certainly give some clarification and potential further grounds to bring forth a valid Vermont traffic ticket defense or suppression issue for a criminal charge that arose merely because of a violation of this outdated law.