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Glossy highway sign with right and wrong decision
Glossy highway sign with right and wrong decision

Who has the ‘right of way’ on the road? Nobody!

An RV and a car collide at an intersection. The drivers get out and an argument ensues as to who was at fault. “I had the right of way,” says one driver. “No,” argues the other, “I had the right of way!” Who do you think is right? Actually, they are both wrong. No one ever has the right of way under any circumstances!

The term “right of way” refers to the privilege of having immediate use of a portion of the roadway and this only occurs when another driver or other drivers give it to you. This is not only a courtesy, but under certain specific conditions you must by law allow others to go first. It’s called yielding the right of way. Failure to yield is one of the most common violations found in fatal collisions. ‘Well,” you might bristle, “that’s just a matter of semantics.” But, let’s look into this a little further.

Intersections are where most right of way conflicts occur. Let’s start with uncontrolled intersections. Those are the kind you find in every neighborhood. In big cities there are thousands of them! There are no signs, no signals, no devices of any kind to assign right of way. So, let’s say two cars arrive at an intersection like this at the same time and at right angles to one another. Who has the right of way, the driver on the right or the driver on the left?

You said the driver on the right has the right of way, didn’t you? Yes you did, I heard you! Wrong! Remember, nobody ever has the right of way!

What the law says is the driver on the left must yield the right of way. That’s different. The driver on the right can never assume that he or she has the right of way until the other driver clearly grants that privilege. My rule of thumb is “If you don’t know . . . don’t go!” and that goes for every right of way situation.

Before we get away from uncontrolled intersections, remember you must also yield to any pedestrians who are in or near a crosswalk; any vehicle that has already entered the intersection; oncoming traffic if you’re turning left and; once again, a vehicle from the right if you both arrive at the same time.

If I was a stop sign I’d really be hurt. Stop signs are ignored more than any other signs except for maybe speed limit signs. Too many people just don’t seem to get why stop signs are there and what they mean. Stop signs are there because people who are smarter than we are about these things (called traffic safety engineers) figured out that this is a place where we really need to stop and have a good look around before we drive out there and get somebody killed — maybe you!

Stop signs mean stop completely and in the right place! Then yield the right of way to any pedestrians who are in or near the crosswalk and all traffic on the through street. Stop signs mean STOP! They don’t mean a “California rolling stop.” They don’t mean, “Gee, officer, I meant to stop.” They don’t mean, “Sorry, pal, I didn’t mean to run over you.” Stop signs mean a full and complete STOP!

Sometimes you’ll need to stop twice! The first time at the stop line or crosswalk to look for pedestrians, the second time to look for other cars. Why is it that so many of us just can’t get it right when it comes to stop signs? And, I don’t care if there is some jerk in a hurry behind you. Don’t let the “intimidators” make your decisions for you! Are you your own boss or what?

Remember, it’s not the intimidator who gets clobbered when you move into that intersection without stopping — it’s you! The intimidator will be down the road and out of there and could care less what happened to you.

Ever hear of a “fresh green light?” A fresh green light is a signal light that just turned green in your favor. Before you go gunning through that intersection, check for any pedestrians who might still be in the crosswalk or any vehicles which might still be in the intersection. If so, yield the right of way. Did you know that you’re required to yield when coming out of an alley, driveway or private roadway? Again, yield means to stop and allow another vehicle or pedestrian to go first.

What about those four-way stops? That’s an intersection where stop signs are located on all four corners and many times there’s also a sign saying “four-way”. The general rule is that everybody stops and the first car to stop is the first car to go. But, what if two cars stop at the same time at right angles to one another? It’s remarkable how often this happens. Who goes first?

Now we go back to the rule for an uncontrolled intersection. The driver on the left must yield to the driver on the right. But BEWARE! What if the driver on your right is Mr. Nice and waves at you to go first? You know better, so you wave back “no thanks.” This goes on for a while and then, guess what? You both go at the same time and crash. Who’s fault?

Even though the other driver waved you through, it’s YOU who gets the ticket for failing to yield the right of way. If this happens stand your ground. You can bet the other driver isn’t going to do you any favors when the cops arrive.

So what are the other mandatory yield situations? If you’ve gotten this far, I’m proud of you.

Everybody knows that we must yield to emergency vehicles. How many times do we see it? The emergency vehicle, lights flashing and siren blaring, has to slow to a crawl and even stop because the driver just cannot trust people to stop at that intersection.

In most states by law you must move as far as possible to the right and stop. You won’t always be able to move all the way to the curb but move as far to the right as you safely can and stop. In other words get out of the way and stay there. Stop clear of an intersection and wait for all emergency vehicles to pass.

If you are in an intersection and waiting to turn left, sometimes it’s best to stay put and let the emergency vehicle find its way past you. Make sure they’ve all passed before you move on. Sometimes they travel in bunches.

Remember, when you hear that siren or see those flashing lights, it means somebody is in trouble, needs help and seconds could make the difference. Imagine you’ve just had a violent collision. You’re lying on the pavement bleeding out and barely breathing. Wouldn’t it be awful to think that you would have lived if only those jerks had pulled over and stopped? But they didn’t so the medics couldn’t get to you in time.

Some yield situations are more obvious. When you’re turning left at any intersection, yield to pedestrians in your turning path and any oncoming vehicles that are at all close. Obviously you must yield at all “yield” signs. Again, these signs are there for a reason. Believe them. And, regardless of the circumstances, yield to the blind or otherwise disabled.

Determining and yielding right of way is an important driver responsibility under any circumstances. In our larger and heavier vehicles with their greater braking and stopping distances this responsibility requires even closer attention and concentration. Please take this seriously.

About Robert Sears

Robert Sears is a professional driving instructor who once owned a company that trained more than 70,000 people to drive. Today he is an author working on several non-fiction books and writing traffic safety articles for consumer and special interest publications. He is a 30-year motorhome owner who has logged several hundred thousand miles of RV driving experience.

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