The light was red when Andrea Washington cruised up, but she was convinced it was OK to turn right without stopping during her driving test last month in Los Gatos. The DMV examiner disagreed and flunked her.

That should sound familiar to some unlucky drivers in Mountain View, who were pulled over two weeks ago - and hammered with $336 tickets - for supposedly running red lights while turning right at El Camino Real and Shoreline Boulevard. Some of them protested, saying what they did was perfectly legal, but to no avail.

So who's, er, right? This time, it's not the authorities.

Andrea and the other drivers were the victims of a confusing twist in California's vehicle code, something that has flummoxed countless drivers, a couple of Department of Motor Vehicles instructors and more than a few traffic cops: the mysterious "free right turn."

What's that? Put simply, it's legal at some intersections to turn right without stopping - even when traffic going straight has a red light. Usually this is on a street with a dedicated right-turn lane, separated by a concrete or painted island, and no signal to drivers' right as they turn onto the next street. Drivers certainly must yield - that means slow down and prepare to stop for pedestrians, bicyclists and other cars - but they can keep motoring if the coast is clear.

You can hardly blame people for scratching their heads. Yield signs are posted at some intersections, but not many. And free right turns are mentioned in neither the state vehicle code nor the California Driver's Handbook, although, thanks to Mr. Roadshow, that may change. All this confusion has led the DMV to consider adding free right turns to its usually helpful 85-page traffic bible.

"The vehicle code is confusing at best, silent at worst," said Ray Williamson, who for 20 years was Sunnyvale's top traffic official and who insisted his city install as many yield signs as possible at these turns.

A flurry of parents began dialing Roadshow this summer as their kids prepared to take their driving tests.

Like Annie Hmieleski of San Jose. At Bernal Road and Santa Teresa Boulevard, the 20-year-old West Valley College student slowed to make a free right turn but did not stop. Ding, said the DMV instructor. "That is a red light; you need to stop," the DMV woman said.

Wrong, but Hmieleski still passed, making her more fortunate than Andrea Washington. On her driving test, the 16-year-old Campbell girl was on Santa Cruz Avenue heading to westbound Highway 9 in Los Gatos, when she merely slowed for the turn, thinking it was safe to proceed. Oops.

Failed driving exam

"I yielded, slowed down, checked for traffic and then went," said the Westmont High School senior-to-be. "When we went back to the DMV, the DMV guy asked if I did anything wrong. I said no. He said, `You can't think of anything?' I again said no. He then told me I had to stop completely and flunked me.

"That didn't make any sense. I was more confused after that than anything."

So was her mom, Sharlene. She and a tearful Andrea scoured the DMV manual and came up empty. Then they drove around the South Bay, looking at other intersections. At Hamilton Avenue and Winchester Boulevard in Campbell, yield signs are posted for the free right turn. But at Hamilton turning onto San Tomas Expressway, another free right, there are no such signs. Ditto at the Highway 17 exit onto San Tomas Expressway - a spot where a few years earlier Sharlene had rear-ended the driver of a BMW who suddenly stopped when he didn't have to.

She even went to the state auto club for guidance, who told her the free right is legal and considered a yield if there is an island, whether there is a yield sign or not. That conflicts with the DMV testing officer. "What is the definitive answer?" she asked.

DMV officials in Sacramento say a full stop is required when turning right only when the turning lane has its own stop sign or a traffic signal that is red.

"Examiners are expected to have a basic understanding of the rules of the road," said Patrick Barrett, manager of driver licensing policy for the DMV. "If an examiner tells an applicant that he must stop at an intersection where the applicant must only yield the right of way, then that would be an error."

Added spokesman Steve Haskins: "There is an implied yield at the intersection without signage. Of course, this should be clarified with the local law enforcement agency."

Conflicting advice

So I asked the police. I'm not sure it helped, after checks with several cops.

"I am not aware of the term `free right turns,' and it is my opinion that drivers must stop behind the limit line of all red lights," said Fremont police Lt. Tom Mikkelsen, adding: "This is the best advice I can give."

Milpitas police Lt. Tom Borck said about the same thing: "As far as the vehicle code stands, you are required to stop if there is no yield sign."

But, countered Campbell police Sgt. Chris Milosovich: "There is no requirement to stop unless there is a signal light or stop sign to the right."

Added Palo Alto police Sgt. Steve Herrera: "It is a yield situation. I hope you don't get too many conflicting answers from us."

And then there's Mountain View. Police were watching the busy intersection at El Camino Real and Shoreline two weeks ago. With a crew from KRON-TV (Ch. 4) out on a story about a crackdown on red-light running, driver after driver saw flashing lights in their rear-view mirrors as they made their free right turns and were ticketed.

Many of the tickets will probably be dismissed.

"Police officers are human and they make mistakes," Mountain View police Sgt. Mike Alexander said. "We try very hard to identify training issues and act on them promptly. The most important thing is to do what is right, and dismissing the citations, in my opinion, is the right thing to do."

Back to Andrea. Armed with her new knowledge, she took a second driving test a couple of weeks ago again in Los Gatos. Again on Santa Cruz Avenue. Turn right onto Highway 9, the instructor said. Andrea tensed up. This was the same turn that led to her flunking the last time.

Only this time . . . the light was green.

Whew.

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Can you make this turn without stopping?

Confusion can reign as to when drivers can legally turn right without stopping if it's safe to do so. Free right turns are legal at some intersections. It all depends on where the signals are set up.

Where it's legal :Motorists are allowed to turn right without stopping at intersections with an island separating the turning lane -- if there is no signal or stop sign to their right as they turn. Treat this as a yield situation -- slow down, watch for pedestrians and bicyclists, and proceed when safe. An example: south on Santa Cruz Avenue, turning right onto Los Gatos Saratoga Road in Los Gatos.

Where it's not legal: Motorists must stop at similar intersections if there is a red light or stop sign to their right as they turn. This is the case at northbound Saratoga Avenue onto eastbound Payne Avenue in San Jose. Source: DMV