Turn, Turn, Turn: Jersey’s Jughandles

The Jersey jughandle can drive you crazy, but traffic experts say it’s the safer way to go.

Out of state drivers can be baffled by Jersey jughandles.
Novice drivers and out-of-staters in particular can be baffled by Jersey jughandles, ubiquitous features of our rough-and-tumble roadscape.
Illustration by Peter Oumanski

“Look, there’s a Chipotle! Can we get lunch?” asks my 13-year-old son as I drive along Route 22 near Springfield, our SUV filled with the morning’s haul from Target.

“No,” I say. “I don’t know how to get there from here.”

“But it’s right there,” he pleads, pointing across the road.

“I see it, but I don’t know where I’m supposed to turn.”

“Seriously?” he says, stomach audibly growling.

Yes, as serious as the thought of slicing through several lanes of traffic in search of a jughandle that might point me in the right direction. As serious as the jumble of signs that don’t clearly show me the way.

The jughandle turn, which debuted in New Jersey roadway designs in the late 1930s and ’40s, is as much a part of our state as Taylor ham and Bruce Springsteen. In simple terms, the jughandle requires drivers to turn right in order to turn left. In the most common type of jughandle, you use a right-hand exit prior to an intersection, then enter a U-shaped stretch that ends with a traffic light at the intersection. When the light turns green, you go—either continuing straight across the intersection to complete a left turn, or turning left for a U-turn.

Got that?

Not everyone does. Novice drivers and out-of-staters in particular can be baffled by Jersey jughandles, ubiquitous features of our rough-and-tumble roadscape.

In fact, New Jersey has—fasten your seatbelt—more than 600 jughandles, the most of any state, says Steve Schapiro, acting communications director for the state’s Department of Transportation.
No one knows who devised the jughandle, but it’s not hard to understand their proliferation.

Traffic experts say jughandles confer two major benefits. “One is from a mobility perspective,” says Andy Kaplan, senior transportation safety engineer at the Center for Advanced Infrastructure and Transportation at Rutgers University. “You’re reducing the number of phases in a traffic signal.” That saves motorists who are not turning from having to wait for left-turn signals to cycle through before they can go. A recent Federal Highway Administration report found traffic moves faster through intersections with jughandles than those without.

“The other big advantage is safety,” says Kaplan. “That has to do with making high-speed turns across three, four or five lanes of traffic. By removing that conflict, you can avoid high-cost collisions. National studies have shown that displacing left turns has been a significant safety improvement.”

But in New Jersey, signs indicating jughandles are part of a too-much-information problem. “In a state like New Jersey, we have sign clutter,” Kaplan says. “There are so many signs about so much going on that a driver may see them all but not be able to pick up on them all”—which could easily cause a driver to miss the turn to Chipotle.

Another kink is that some jughandles are too short to handle today’s higher traffic flow, creating right-lane congestion. “When infrastructures get older and traffic volumes get higher, a system is going to start to break down,” Kaplan acknowledges.

At least one Jersey lawmaker wants to straighten out the jughandle situation. In 2013, state Senator James W. Holzapfel (R-Ocean) proposed a bill that would “prohibit the planning, designing or construction of any additional jughandles on the public roads or highways in the state.” The bill failed, but Holzapfel plans to reintroduce the measure to halt new jughandles, “because they’re archaic.”

“I try to think I’m not a pain in the ass,” Holzapfel says. “A lot of times I see something and I say, ‘It is what it is, life goes on.’ But the jughandle bothers me, and I think if it bothers me, it bothers a lot of people.”

Among other points, Holzapfel says many Jersey jughandles can’t accommodate today’s massive trucks. “They can hardly get through older jughandles,” he says. Kaplan responds that he’s not aware of studies to that effect.

Kaplan and Holzapfel do agree that jughandles come at a steep, and often hidden cost.

“They’re often on corner lots, eliminating the development of prime real estate on major highways,” says Kaplan. Adds Holzapfel: “If you analyze the cost of going in and condemning a lot of property to put in a jughandle, it’s expensive. It’s got to be millions and millions of dollars. Land’s not cheap.”

Still, Kaplan maintains, “they’re a good tool to have in our toolbox.”

Steve Carrellas, the New Jersey representative of the National Motorists Association, often gets quizzed about jughandles. But he’s unfazed. “As far as I’m concerned, they’re less confusing than other mechanisms for dealing with turning,” he says. Take Michigan, for example: “They have a system there that’s caused me to miss the boat. They have a diagram, but even with their stupid diagram I couldn’t figure it out.”

By comparison, he says, the jughandle is a marvel of engineering. “It’s a solution to a problem. Live here long enough, and you get used to it.”

Freelancer Tammy La Gorce sometimes has trouble finding her way to her new home in Union County.

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