How Do I Know Who Has the Right of Way?

Right-of-way rules can often be confusing for various situations, but the law only dictates when to yield the right of way.
Written by Macy Fouse
Reviewed by Jessica Barrett
Most laws only state when the right of way must be yielded, but they give no clarification beyond that. For this reason, we’ve all been caught in an awkward stalemate at a four-way stop where no one knows whose turn it is or stuck on a backroad wondering who gets to go first. 
Right-of-way rules can be vague at best, so we've compiled a guide defining what right of way is and when to yield it. With our help, you can make the best right-of-way decisions for every driving situation.

What is the right of way?

Right of way” is an understood set of rules intended to make traffic move as smoothly as possible in any situation. Despite common misconceptions, the right of way isn’t an inalienable right that exempts you from responsibility in a driving situation. 
If you have the right of way, it means you’re supposed to continue driving under normal circumstances. If a driver fails to yield their right of way if a situation calls for it, they risk colliding with another vehicle, pedestrian, or cyclist.
For instance, vehicles on an open road have the right of way, meaning they don’t have to stop under normal circumstances. However, if a car pulls out in front of you and you fail to yield your right of way by slowing down or moving out of the way, you can still be held responsible if there’s an accident. The other car will bear legal responsibility, too.

Right-of-way rules

When it comes to the law, the right of way isn’t clearly defined—it’s only clear when to yield the right of way. That being said, right-of-way rules regulate which vehicles yield to other vehicles or pedestrians in various situations.  
These rules range from the more obvious “pedestrians should not walk on the interstate” to the more ambiguous “who goes first on a one-lane back road?” 
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When to yield the right of way

While the rules may be more unclear under certain circumstances, the right of way must be yielded every time in the following situations:
  • To pedestrians in a crosswalk
  • To a person using a seeing-eye guide dog or using a white cane
  • When you have
    a yield sign
  • At uncontrolled intersections where vehicles are already present
  • At T-intersections where you have to yield to vehicles already present on the through-road
  • When turning left (yield to oncoming traffic or pedestrians)
  • When driving on an unpaved road that intersects a paved road
  • When entering the roadway after the car is parked
The right-of-way rules can be less obvious in other scenarios, so keep reading to find out who has the right of way in more specific scenarios. 
Key Takeaway: The law defines when to yield the right of way, but right-of-way rules are put in place to help traffic move smoothly.

Interstate and highway driving

On an open road without traffic lights, intersections, or crosswalks, vehicles have the right of way. Under normal circumstances, you do not have to stop for any vehicles entering the roadway. However, if someone pulls out in front of you, you’ll still have to slow down (or switch lanes, if possible) to avoid an accident.
There are a few exceptions to the right of way on a highway, including the following:
  • Pedestrians. People crossing the road at a crosswalk have the right of way, but if they’re jaywalking without a crosswalk, you’ll still have to stop for them. Just because you technically have the right of way doesn’t mean you can cause damage with impunity.
  • Cars turning right. If a car is turning right to exit the roadway, you have to slow down and let them turn. Hopefully, they’ll use their blinker and brake lights, but you have to do your best to stop even if they don’t. 
  • Emergency vehicles. It is the law to yield (i.e. pull over and stop if possible, slow down if not) to all emergency vehicles with sirens and flashing lights on. If the emergency vehicle is parked on the shoulder, you’ll need to move to the opposite lane when possible.
  • School buses. Many states have laws in place requiring drivers to stop when buses are picking up or dropping off children. Buses are often equipped with stop signs and flashing lights to remind drivers to stop. Laws about how far away to stop vary by state, so be aware of the rule in your state. 
Although it seems like cyclists would be an exception to the right-of-way rule on open roads, bicycles on a roadway must obey the same traffic laws as vehicles. If a road or location gives bikes specific privileges, it will typically be visually obvious with indicated bike lanes and signs.

Controlled intersections

Vehicles going straight have the right of way through controlled intersections, which are intersections with automated traffic lights. Here are a few different scenarios and the right-of-way rule in each situation. 

Turning right at a controlled intersection

  • Green arrow: You have the right of way, but be aware of any pedestrians or oncoming cars turning left in the intersection.
  • Green light: You have the right of way, but double-check to make sure the crosswalk is clear of pedestrians. Also, be aware of oncoming cars turning left who may have forgotten that it’s your right of way.
  • Red light: You do not have the right of way, so come to a complete stop. You can typically turn, though, if there is a break in oncoming traffic.
  • Red arrow: You do not have the right of way and you are not allowed to turn even if there’s a break in traffic. You must wait until the light is green or you have a green arrow.

Turning left at a controlled intersection

  • Green arrow: You have the right of way, though make sure to always be aware of your surroundings, including pedestrians who may be disobeying the “do not cross” sign.
  • Green light: Oncoming traffic has the right of way, so yield to them. Only turn when there is a clear break in traffic and always keep an eye out for crossing pedestrians.
  • Yellow arrow: Oncoming traffic has the automatic right of way, but you can go if there’s an opening.
  • Red arrow: Do not turn, even if there is an opening in oncoming traffic.
Some states have laws against inching forward into the intersection while you wait your turn to turn left.

Uncontrolled intersections

Uncontrolled intersections include any intersection that is not electronically controlled, like a four-way stop. Let’s go over a few right-of-way scenarios for these types of intersections.
  • Staggered arrivals at a stop sign: This scenario operates on a “first come, first served” basis. Come to a complete stop and be aware of other drivers, even when it’s your turn to go.
  • Simultaneous arrivals: “Yield to the right” is the typical rule for this scenario. This one can be tricky, so you can wave to the other driver to signal that you’re letting them go before you. If you’re turning, you should also yield to whoever is going straight.
  • Yield signs: Whoever has the yield sign, by default, does not have the right of way. You can go once there is an opening in traffic.
  • Roundabouts/traffic circles: Whoever is in the roundabout has the right of way, so you automatically yield when approaching one. Enter the roundabout once there’s an opening, and turn on your blinker when you intend to exit. 
  • On-ramps: Vehicles already on the freeway have the right of way. Entering vehicles need to speed up and merge into an opening. It’s important to remember to always use your blinker when merging.
  • Turning left on a straightaway road: Use the median turning lane if there is one, then make your turn when there’s an opening in oncoming traffic.
  • Turning left on a straightaway with a car in the median: Yield to the car that was there first, since they’re in the most vulnerable position. Once they turn, you can move into the median.
Key Takeaway: If you aren’t aware of the right-of-way rule for a fuzzy situation, it’s always safest to yield right of way and drive defensively at all times. 
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Single-lane roads

Some back roads aren’t wide enough to accommodate two vehicles at once, and in this instance, the right of way goes to whichever car is going uphill. You must pull over to let the other car pass. If there isn’t enough space, you must back up until you can find a place to pull over to let them pass. 
This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, though—the uphill vehicle can find a wider space to pull over if it’s more practical. 

Be aware of your surroundings

Most of these rules should apply to the majority of the United States, but traffic laws can vary by location. Any rules that deviate from the norm should be communicated clearly via traffic signs, so always pay attention to traffic signs when you’re driving. 
Whether or not you have the right of way, you should always drive defensively in every situation. Do your best to anticipate other drivers’ actions and never insist on your right of way. Yielding your right of way, as well as driving courteously in general, is the best way to avoid accidents.

Be prepared with great insurance

Not everyone is aware of the right-of-way rules, and other drivers just may not be as cautious as you are. To be prepared for any situation, you want to be sure you have the proper car insurance coverage.
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Key Takeaway: Try to anticipate other drivers’ actions on the road. It’s also wise to make sure you have comprehensive car insurance to protect yourself against less cautious drivers.
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