I’m still wondering about the Pittsburgh Left. No one can tell me where it comes from. | You Had to Ask | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

I’m still wondering about the Pittsburgh Left. No one can tell me where it comes from.

Question submitted by: Catherine Stephens

There's been a lot of talk about the Pittsburgh Left lately, largely because of Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger's recent collision with a left-turning car at the foot of the 10th Street Bridge.

But there seems to be confusion about what the "Pittsburgh Left" actually entails. Some people seem to define it as "any aggressive attempt to turn in an intersection." KDKA-TV, for example, quoted "authorities" saying the other driver involved in the accident "made a 'Pittsburgh Left,' which means she followed directly behind another car going through the light at the intersection and didn't have a protected green arrow." One local blogger commenting on the Roethlisberger controversy, meanwhile, defined the Pittsburgh Left as being "what Pittsburghers do at an intersection when turning left."

Logically, though, not every left turn made in Pittsburgh can be a "Pittsburgh Left." After all, people make left turns in other cities too. I've seen it myself.

With the Steelers so ingrained in Pittsburgh's identity, perhaps it's natural to think Roethlisberger's accident somehow reflected our identity as well.

Consider, for example, the coverage given this vital issue in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. A June 14 dispatch called the Pittsburgh Left a "vehicular tic that compels Pittsburgh drivers to rocket through left turns heedless of oncoming traffic," and called it "as unique to the region as a … Primanti's sandwich." Yet in the next paragraph, the piece acknowledged that "[a]ccording to the purest definition of this nationally known colloquialism," Roethlisberger's bike accident "likely doesn't qualify."

As the Trib noted, and as longtime residents know, the Pittsburgh Left takes place when two or more cars — one planning to go straight, and the other to turn left — face off at a red light without a "left-turn only" lane or signal. The Pittsburgh Left occurs when the light turns green, and the driver turning left takes the turn without yielding to the oncoming car. That's not what happened in Roethlisberger's accident: By all accounts, the light had already been green in both directions when Roethlisberger collided with the car.

Even so, if you look at page 39 of your driver's manual, you'll see that the Pittsburgh Left is technically illegal. ("Drivers turning left must yield to oncoming vehicles going straight ahead," the manual advises.) So how did it get started? Why does it continue?

No one can pinpoint the origins of the practice, of course. But when executed correctly, the Pittsburgh Left is a justifiable, and maybe even inevitable, response to Pittsburgh's history and topography.

Pittsburgh is an old city, many of whose streets were designed before automobiles held sway. (The streets of the Golden Triangle, for example, were laid out in the 1790s, and still provide the template for Downtown today.) It's also a city whose neighborhoods are nestled among hills and river valleys. Broad stretches of flat land, like those alongside the rivers, were taken up by steel mills and other industrial uses. As a result, even neighborhoods with a lot of room, like the South Side, ended up being cramped.

Arguably, those factors help give Pittsburgh its "tight-knit" neighborhoods and vaunted "small-town" feel. But they also mean that street grids are constricted, with little room for amenities like left-turn-only lanes. The absence of such lanes means drivers have to solve traffic problems on their own. Instead of letting one car at the head of an intersection bottle up traffic behind it, the Pittsburgh Left gives the turning driver a chance to get out of everyone else's way. In exchange for a few seconds of patience, the Pittsburgh Left allows traffic in both directions to move smoothly for the duration of the signal.

Of course, the system only works if both drivers know about it. No doubt that's why newcomers find it so vexing. Still, there's a lot to like about Pittsburgh driving habits. In a 1999 report, the Surface Transportation Policy Project found that Pittsburgh had the country's fourth-lowest death rate from aggressive driving. "The majority of the metropolitan areas with lower aggressive-driving deaths are older" and less oriented to the automobile, the report concluded.

In other words, not only are quirks like the Pittsburgh Left innocent in the Roethlisberger crash … they may actually be saving lives.

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