The rules of the road are a set of laws intended to keep travelers on Washington roads safe. However, I am guessing, like most people, the last time you browsed this riveting piece of content was sometime around your first driving test at 16 years old. If this is the case for you, it is time to brush up on one of the most important rules of the road - who has the right of way at an intersection?
WHY IS FOLLOWING RULES REGARDING RIGHT OF WAY IMPORTANT?
If drivers did not have an established set of rules followed by all regarding who has the right of way, chaos would ensue. It is human nature to be impatient. Drivers would be unable to determine who should proceed at an intersection causing a free for all system in which drivers dart through multiple lanes of traffic trying to be the first to make it to the other side safely.
The only outcome that can be imagined in such a scenario is a pile up of crushed vehicles, serious injuries to drivers and their passengers, and gridlock for hours. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration more than 50% of the combined total of fatal and injury crashes occur at or near intersections. When you consider that 2021 was the deadliest on Washington roads in fifteen (15) years with 540 total car accident fatalities, that is a lot of deaths occurring at intersections.
However, by following the rules of the road regarding right of way at intersections, this can be prevented.
WHAT RULES REGARDING RIGHT OF WAY DO YOU NEED TO KNOW?
The rules of the road applicable to all motorists in Washington State can be found in the Revised Code of Washington at Chapter 46.61, and the rules regarding right of way are located at sections .180 - .220.
In general, when two vehicles approach the same intersection from different highways at approximately the same time, the driver of the vehicle on the left shall yield the right of way to the vehicle on the right. See RCW 46.61.180(1).
However, the rules allow for preferential right of way to be indicated, usually by a stop or yield sign. See RCW 46.61.190. This means, if you approach an intersection with a stop sign, you must stop and allow vehicles without a stop sign to proceed first. You may only proceed through the intersection when there is no other vehicle "so close as to constitute and immediate hazard." See RCW 46.61.190(1).
In contrast, when approaching a yield sign, the driver of a vehicle is only required to "slow down to a speed reasonable for the existing conditions" and must stop only if the vehicle with no stop or yield sign is "so close as to constitute an immediate hazard." See RCW 46.61.190(3).
WHAT ABOUT VEHICLES MAKING LEFT TURNS? WHO HAS THE RIGHT OF WAY?
Whether you are at an uncontrolled intersection, have a stop sign or a yield sign, the vehicle making a left hand turn must "yield the right of way to any vehicle approaching from the opposite direction which is within the intersection or so close as to constitute an immediate hazard." See RCW 46.61.185. Further, left turning drivers have a duty to look for approaching traffic, whether they are favored or disfavored, and whether or not they actually look or see another vehicle there, they will be charged with seeing what was there to be seen. See Chess v. Reynolds, 189 Wash. 547, 66 P.2d 297 (1937).
How this applies in real life situations is not always clear, and drivers making left hand turns are often surprised to find that they are at least partially at fault for accidents occurring at intersections, even when they have a green light or green turn arrow. This is because in Washington State a greater duty of care is placed upon a left turning driver to ensure that the intersection is clear before proceeding with their turn. See Niven v. Macdonald, 72 Wn.2d 93, 431 P.2d 724 (1967)(driver turning left found negligent as a matter of law when he failed to observe an overtaking vehicle approaching from his rear).
WHAT IS A ROUNDABOUT AND WHO HAS THE RIGHT OF WAY?
The Washington State Department of Transportation defines a roundabout as "a circular intersection where drivers travel counterclockwise around a center island." Generally there are no traffic signals or stop signs when entering roundabouts.
While driving in a roundabout can be intimidating the first time, roundabouts have actually been found to greatly improve safety. In fact, it has been found that roundabouts provide:
- A 37% reduction in overall collisions.
- A 75% reduction in injury collisions.
- A 90% reduction in fatal collisions.
- A 40% reduction in pedestrian collisions.
Further, it has been found that roundabout improve the flow of traffic and help prevent congestion by decreasing delays by 89% and vehicle stops by 56%.
In general, when approaching a roundabout a driver should:
- Yield to drivers already in the roundabout (drivers already traveling in a roundabout have the right of way);
- Do not change lanes;
- Do not stop in a roundabout; and
- Avoid driving next to oversized vehicles.
For additional information about how to safely travel in a roundabout, the WSDOT has published a helpful brochure titled "How to get around a spiral roundabout" that can be found here.
DO PEDESTRIANS AND BICYCLISTS HAVE THE RIGHT OF WAY AT INTERSECTIONS?
Under Washington law, the driver of a vehicle approaching an intersection shall stop and remain stopped to allow pedestrians or bicyclists to cross the intersection, whether marked or unmarked. See RCW 46.61.235. However, this right of way afforded to pedestrians and bicyclists at intersections is not unlimited. The law further states that no pedestrian or bicyclists "shall suddenly leave a curb or other place of safety and walk, run, or otherwise move into the path of a vehicle which is so close that it is impossible for the driver to stop."
DO EMERGENCY VEHICLES HAVE THE RIGHT OF WAY?
In general, the driver of every vehicle upon the roadway shall yield the right of way to an emergency vehicle using audible or visual signals as required by law. The driver of a vehicle should position their vehicle parallel and as close as possible to the right hand side of the roadway clear of any intersection and shall remains stopped until the emergency vehicle has passed. The driver of the emergency vehicle is still required to drive with "due regard for the safety of all persons using the highway." See RCW 46.61.210.
WHAT SHOULD YOU DO IF YOU WERE INJURED IN AN ACCIDENT IN WHICH THE OTHER DRIVER FAILED TO YIELD THE RIGHT OF WAY?
1. TAKE AS MANY PHOTOS OF THE SCENE/INTERSECTION AS POSSIBLE. Liability decisions in right of way collisions often turn on what physical evidence is available. Therefore, it is important to gather evidence, including photos of the intersection and the location of any debris, skid marks, or other markings, within the intersection immediately. This evidence is quickly destroyed. If possible, take photos before leaving the scene.
2. DO NOT ATTEMPT TO NEGOTIATE FAILURE TO YIELD ACCIDENTS WITH INSURANCE COMPANIES YOURSELF. There are many nuances to determining liability in right of way intersection collisions. It would be impossible to cover them all in one blog article. If you have been injured in a right of way intersection accident, you should immediately contact a knowledgeable and experienced personal injury attorney.
3. DO NOT GIVE A RECORDED STATEMENT BEFORE SPEAKING WITH AN ATTORNEY. Delays in contacting an attorney in these types of cases can be fatal to your ability to obtain maximum compensation for your injuries. Insurance companies will always request a recorded statement from the drivers of the involved vehicles in these cases. The insurance companies will twist everything you say to fit their own version of liability for the accident.
Our injury lawyer, Crystal R. Lloyd, has the experience and knowledge needed to document and negotiate right of way collisions with the insurance companies. Having previously worked as an insurance adjuster responsible for negotiating liability cases on behalf o the insurance company, she is familiar with the tactics insurance companies use to trick injured victims into making statements that make it appear as though the injured victim is liable. If you have been injured, contact Lloyd Injury Law immediately for a FREE CONSULTATION.