Legalese: Right-of-way

This column first published on Aug. 17, 2014

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Most people know the basic rules of traffic, and what the basic signs mean. However, I have been asked from time to time about the concept of “right of way.” This concept not only regulates the flow of traffic but often decides who is at fault in an accident.

Stop signs are clear. When you see one, stop. A red blinking light is the same as a stop sign. When you stop at a stop sign, however, make sure you know whether or not the other directions of traffic also have a stop sign. More than one accident has been caused by someone at the stop sign assuming that the person coming from the left will stop. Ooops! No stop sign there. T-Boned. At a four-way stop, the person who stopped first has the right of way. If it is unclear, the person to the right has the right of way.

Yield signs tend to confuse people. Yield according to dictionary.com means “to give up as to a superior power or authority.” What that means, in terms of traffic, is you surrender the right of way to anyone else who has a greater right of way. So, you wouldn’t have to let someone waiting at a red light go in front of you, but anyone else who doesn’t have to stop goes first.

Yield signs are most confusing when they are at the corner of a right turn lane. Normally, a person making a right turn has the right of way over a person making a left turn. However, if you are at an intersection making a right turn, and there is a yield sign, and someone is turning left (with a green light, or with no traffic signal at all) you must let them turn before you go.

A blinking yellow light means “proceed with caution.” So, if you are at an intersection which has a traffic light, but it is blinking, if you have a blinking red, stop and wait your turn until it is clear to go, same as you would if you were at a stop sign. If you have a blinking yellow light, go ahead, don’t stop, but be careful.

Of course, if a police officer is directing traffic, do what the officer tells you to do, regardless of any traffic lights or signs. Same goes for the guys on road construction crews who operate the ‘stop’ and ‘slow’ signs.

A police officer (or sheriff or road construction guys) are the only people who can create alternative right of ways. I have seen many accidents happen this way: there is a line of cars stopped for a red light. Someone is trying to pull out of a driveway and wants to turn left on to the road. The cars nearest him leave a gap so he can pull through, but he can’t see through the line of cars to see if anyone is coming from the opposite direction. The person who left the gap waives him on. He pulls out and turns left, and BAM, someone from the opposite direction hits him. While this may morally be the fault of the person who waived him on, it is not ethically. The person who was turning did not have the right of way, and no amount of civilian waiving or encouragement can create it.

These rules were not designed to confuse or make things more difficult. They were made to create a set of rules that everyone follows to ensure safety on the roads.

This article was written by a lawyer, but should not be considered legal advice in any way, shape, or form. It is written for general (and generally vague) informational purposes only. In order to properly evaluate your case, a lawyer must examine all the facts and circumstances that are particular and personal to your situation. I have not done that here.

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