Right of Way in Every (Driving) Situation

Last Updated: July 31, 2023 |
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One of the most challenging parts of driving theory is the right of way rules.  We’ve all been in that standoff situation at a four-way stop sign where each car seems to arrive at the same exact moment. Who goes first? While these situations can be stressful, there are procedures to follow that give logic to the chaos.  Our in-depth guide to the right of way will clear things up.  Hopefully with our help, you make the best right of way decisions in virtually any driving situation.

What is Right of Way?

Some drivers have the misconception that the right of way in the United States is a fundamental and protected right.  They think of right-of-way laws like the right to freedom of speech. In the eyes of these drivers, if they get in an accident where they had the right of way, they will not be held responsible. This thinking is not only untrue, but hazardous to others.  It fails to include any defensive driving practices.

Let’s pretend a driver is heading down the road at 35 miles an hour.  A pedestrian begins jaywalking in front of them. Since there is no crosswalk, the driver concludes that vehicles in the roadway have the right of way. Feeling perfectly justified, the driver pushes on the gas and plows into the pedestrian. Our fictional driver will be unpleasantly surprised when he gets ticketed and faces charges for causing an accident that he could have reasonably avoided with basic defensive driving practices.

Right of way is not some immunity from harm or responsibility. Instead, it is the concept that governs which vehicles on the roadway yield to other vehicles (or pedestrians) under specific conditions. If you have the right of way in a situation, it means that you are supposed to continue driving under normal circumstances. Vehicles on an open road have the right of way.  This means that they do not have to stop or slow down to allow other vehicles to enter the roadway under normal circumstances. But if a car pulls out in front of you while you’re driving down a road and you do not try to slow down or otherwise avoid an accident, you can still be held legally responsible for the consequences (the driver that pulled out in front of you would be in trouble too, of course). Likewise, in our first scenario, the driver with the right of way still needs to do everything they can to avoid hitting the pedestrian, even though that person should not be crossing there.

In other words, the concept of the right of way is really a set of rules designed to help traffic flow smoothly in virtually any situation. These rules are sometimes self-explanatory (pedestrians should not walk on the freeway) but can sometimes be confusing (who goes first at a 4-way stop?). In this comprehensive guide, we’re going to cover just about every scenario you’ll encounter on the road.

Right of Way: Driving Straight

If you drive on a straightaway without lights, intersections, or crosswalks, you have the right of way. This means that you do not have to stop for cars entering the roadway. It does not mean that you don’t have to watch out, though. Someone may underestimate the time it takes to cross traffic and turn in front of you. In this case, as we’ve already discussed, you’ll need to slow down to avoid an accident (but feel free to politely tap your horn to point out the driver’s mistake).

There are a couple of exceptions to this scenario, as well as a few other things you need to watch out for, including:

Pedestrians: In our out of crosswalks, watch out for people in the roadway. If there is a crosswalk, pedestrians have the right of way. If there is no crosswalk (and they’re not at an intersection), they may be jaywalking, but you’re still going to have to stop for them. Remember that just because you have the right of way doesn’t mean you get to go no matter what, so if you’re a pedestrian, make sure the cars are going to stop for you before you charge across the road!

Cars turning right off the motorway: Hopefully, they’ll have a blinker and brake lights on, but even if they don’t, you’ll need to slow down and let them turn.

Emergency Vehicles: You are required by law to yield to any: emergency vehicle with sirens and flashing lights. Furthermore, you should move into the left lane when emergency vehicles are parked on the right shoulder of the roadway, if possible (or the right lane if they’re on the left).

School busses: Most states have laws that require motorists to stop for busses that are dropping off or picking up children. Most of these busses will have stop signs that extend and sometimes flash to remind motorists to stop. State laws stipulate how far away you’ll need to stop, so make sure you’re familiar with those laws. Also, busses (and some other vehicles carrying passengers or flammable/hazardous materials) have to stop at railroad crossings. If you are behind one of these vehicles, you will have to stop too.

Bicycles: We actually include this one here because they are not an exception. Bicycles are vehicles on the roadway, and they must obey the same laws as other traffic. Some roadways may choose to give bicycles preferential treatment, but those instances will usually be marked.

Right of Way: Turning Right at a Controlled Intersection

A controlled intersection is one with an automated traffic light. Turning right at a controlled intersection is usually pretty straightforward (see what I did there?). Since cars going straight have the right of way, you’ll need to yield to oncoming traffic.

Several different scenarios can happen when turning right at a controlled intersection, so we’ll break them down here.

Green arrow: If you have a green arrow, you have the right of way! Watch out for pedestrians and cars that might be turning left in the intersection. As long as nobody is in the crosswalk, it’s your turn to go.

Greenlight: You have the right of way, but pedestrians might be crossing. Make sure the crosswalk is clear before you go. Also, cars coming from the opposite direction can be turning left. Since you have the right of way, they are supposed to yield to you—keep your eyes open for those drivers that forget that!

Red light: If there is a red light, you do not have the right of way. You will need to come to a complete stop. Afterward, if there is an opening in the oncoming traffic, you can go. Since traffic going straight has the right of way, you’ll need to make sure the gap in traffic is big enough to allow you to get up to speed—in other words, make sure people don’t have to slow down to not run into you.

Red arrow: If there is a red arrow, you do not have the right of way, and you may not go—even after you come to a complete stop. You’ll need to wait for a green arrow or a green light and an opening.

Right of Way: Turning Left at a Controlled Intersection

These rules are pretty similar to the ones we’ve listed above.

Green Arrow: If you’re trying to turn left and see a green arrow, you have the right of way. Make sure that there aren’t any pedestrians crossing, though. The traffic signals should have told them not to cross, but that doesn’t mean that it’s guaranteed to be clear. Ultimately, you need to be aware in every situation, even if you know you have the right of way.

Green Light: If you are turning left and you have a green light, the oncoming traffic has the right of way, and you must yield. Many states allow you to creep forward into the intersection to wait for an opening in the traffic—but not all states. In some states, you can get a ticket for this, so make sure you check the local laws if you’re going to be driving in an unfamiliar area. Watch the oncoming vehicles for an opening, and make sure there are no pedestrians before completing the turn.

Green Arrow: You have the right of way. Watch for pedestrians.

Yellow Arrow: Oncoming traffic has the right of way. You may go when there is an opening.

Red Arrow: You do not have the right of way, and you may not go at all—even if there is an opening in traffic.

Right of Way: Uncontrolled Intersections

An uncontrolled intersection is not an intersection without rules. Rather, it is an intersection that is not electronically controlled, such as a 4-way stop.

Arriving at a stop sign (staggered): We try to keep our driving laws as simple as possible, so uncontrolled intersections can usually be navigated successfully using the “first come, first served” ideology. Basically, whoever arrives at the intersection first has the right of way. If you arrive first, that’s you! Just make sure you come to a complete stop and know what other drivers might be doing. Just because the rules are simple doesn’t mean everyone follows them.

Arriving at a stop sign (simultaneously): People sometimes freeze up in these situations, but there’s a simple rule that can make things easier for everyone. The vehicle on the right has the right of way. In other words, yield to the car on your right. Of course, this system breaks down pretty easily if one of the drivers forgets this rule. But hey, you’re both stopped, right? So wave the other driver through! This is you telling them, “Hey, I’m giving you the right of way.” Things could get pretty tricky if you both wave each other through, though, so remember the rule, be the first to waive, or don’t be afraid to go if they yield right of way to you.
Previous rules still hold, so if you are trying to turn left and arrive simultaneously as another driver across from you who is going straight, they have the right of way because they’re going straight. Let them clear the intersection before you complete your turn.

Yield Signs: Again, we try to keep things simple. Yield literally means “yield the right of way,” so if you have a yield sign, then you do not have the right of way. You don’t necessarily have to stop, though you might need to if there’s too much traffic. Once there is an opening, you are free to go.

Roundabouts: Roundabouts are becoming more popular in the United States, and it’s reasonable to assume that every driver will encounter at least a few of them on the road at some point. The roundabout traffic has the right of way, so you’ll need to yield when you approach one (whether you have a yield sign or not). Because cars stopped outside a roundabout have to yield, the world is a much better place if you turn on your blinker to signal which exit you’re going to take. But again, remember to remain alert: someone might have accidentally left their blinker on and intend to continue in the roundabout. You must always drive defensively!

On-Ramps: Vehicles traveling on the freeway or highway have the right of way. You must get up to speed and merge into an opening. They should not have to slow down to accommodate you. Blinkers are your friends here! Once again, the right of way doesn’t mean you have the right to smash into people. If someone is merging incorrectly, move over or do your best to avoid an accident.

Turning Left on a Straightaway: Most main roads have median lanes into which you can move your vehicle if you need to turn left off of a straightaway. Move into the median, and yield the right of way to the oncoming traffic. Once there is an opening, you can complete your turn.

Turning Left onto a Straightaway with a vehicle in the median: Every once in a while, you’ll be trying to turn onto a straight away, and you’ll find someone already in the median—right where you need to be! The rule is that the vehicle in the media has the right of way. The idea is that they are in the most vulnerable position because they are literally stopped in the middle of the road. Let them complete their turn before you move to the median.

Right of Way: One-lane Backroads

Going downhill: If you drive down a steep incline on a one-lane backroad and encounter another vehicle going uphill, you must yield the right of way. In other words, vehicles going uphill have the right of way. Pullover if you can and let them pass. If you cannot pull over, you will need to back up until you can find a place to let the driver pass.

Always Know Who Has the Right of Way

These rules for right of way should hold just about anywhere in the United States. Still, traffic laws can vary by state, county, and even city, so make sure you familiarize yourself with local laws before you travel. For the most part, though, any special or unique rules will be well-illustrated on roadways. Just remember that having the right of way does not free you from all responsibility. You’ll still need to drive defensively in every situation, so why not take a moment and check out some of our other articles on defensive driving?

Drive safe out there!