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'Pittsburgh Left' seen by many as a local right

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Wednesday, June 14, 2006

They put it so simply.

"Drivers turning left must yield to oncoming vehicles going straight ahead," the Pennsylvania Driver's Manual states.

Yet the infamous "Pittsburgh Left" remains. The Pittsburgh Left, a bit of local color as unique to the region as a prothonotary or a Primanti's sandwich - and just as baffling to outsiders - is the name given to that vehicular tic that compels Pittsburgh drivers to rocket through left turns heedless of oncoming traffic.

According to the purest definition of this nationally known colloquialism, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's wreck Monday likely doesn't qualify. At least one drivers' safety advocate, however, hopes it will prompt people to pay a little more respect to the rules of the road.

"The No. 1 cause of accidents at intersections is people who don't know how to yield," said Gerry Mancini, owner of the Kennedy School of Driving in Coraopolis and a driving instructor for more than 30 years. "Then there are people who demand the right of way."

The Pittsburgh Left is a bit of both. Here's how it goes:

Two lines of cars in opposite lanes on the same road wait at a red light. The lead car in one lane has its left turn signal blinking. The lead car in the opposite lane is going straight. The light turns green and the driver who wants to turn left cuts across the opposing lane of traffic. The driver of the opposing lead car either waits patiently, slams on his brakes or plows into the first car.

In Roethlisberger's crash, witnesses said the car he hit was turning after the lighted arrow giving it the right of way had disappeared. It could take several weeks for police to reconstruct the wreck.

"People think the road belongs to them," said Lacy McCoy, 59, of Manchester. "They think they've just got to make that light."

Both McCoy and Mancini said the dangerous maneuver is so ingrained in local driving habits, it's not likely to change.

Nationally, more people get injured in wrecks involving left turns than in almost any other kind of wreck. Such accidents injured about 350,000 people and killed nearly 3,000 in 2004, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Neither the agency nor PennDOT could provide statistics specific to Pennsylvania.

Mark Moran, of Millvale, acknowledged the Pittsburgh Left sometimes leaves him fuming and said a truck making such a turn clipped the front end of his pickup last year. Still, he defended the maneuver, saying it's necessary because of the city's ill-timed traffic lights and narrow roads that prevent other cars from going around someone waiting to turn.

"Yeah, it makes me angry," said Moran, 33. "At the same time, I've got to admit, if I'm stuck at a light and I'm pressed for time ... well, you gotta do what you gotta do."

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