Right of Way


Right-of-way violations were the second most common type of improper driving leading to deaths and the foremost issue for injury producing incidents. – “Injury Facts” (Nat’l Safety Council)


Two or more vehicles can’t safely share the same space on the road at the same time; therefore, it is important to set guidelines about who can move first to occupy that space.

Right of way rules, together with courtesy and common sense, help to promote traffic safety by letting drivers anticipate a predictable flow of traffic.

Based on these rules, one vehicle has the right to proceed and others must yield the right of way to them.  As drivers we can’t take the right of way from someone else (unless we’re operating an emergency vehicle with lights and sirens).  We can only give it up to someone else.

While there are many specific situations where right of way becomes an issue, there are two major categories of collisions related to this concept:  collisions where a driver disregarded either a traffic signal or posted sign (such as a stop sign), or collisions where there was no traffic control device present.

Running stop signs and red lights has been covered in detail before in our series of training topics.  In this training topic, we’ll focus on other situations when drivers should yield the right of way.

Some Examples of Times to Yield to Others

Where vehicles are likely to meet one another (with or without the help of signs or signals to regulate traffic) there are rules that say who must yield the right-of-way.  These rules tell drivers who goes first and who must wait in different traffic situations.  

Of course, you should do everything you can to prevent striking a pedestrian or another vehicle, regardless of the circumstances.

Here are a few common situations where a driver should yield to pedestrians or other vehicles:

When you use an acceleration or merging lane to enter a freeway or highway, you must give the right of way to vehicles already on the expressway.

When police or emergency vehicles are using sirens or flashing lights. The driver should pull to the right-hand edge of the roadway and stop, if necessary. Intersections should not be blocked.

When making a right turn on red after a stop (where permitted by law)

When making a left-hand turn (yield to oncoming traffic)

Even after the light turns green when there are vehicles in the intersection

When emerging from an alley, building, or driveway after coming to a complete stop

When pulling out of a parking space

When entering a road from a parking lot or roadside rest area

When pedestrians are in crosswalks, including school zones controlled by crossing guards

Ahead of construction zones when lanes are blocked or restricted

At intersections without "STOP" or "YIELD" signs, slow down and be ready to stop. Yield to traffic and pedestrians already in the intersection or just entering the intersection. Intersection collisions account for more than 45 percent of all reported crashes and 21 percent of fatalities according to the Federal Highway Administration.

Besides the ones already listed, there are other examples where yielding the right of way is a smart move or required by law.  The department of motor vehicle services in the State where you live summarizes the key right of way situations in their driver’s manual.  This is usually free of charge and may be online at their web site.  We’d like to call attention to some additional situations where yielding the right of way is important.


A roundabout is an intersection where traffic travels around a central island in a counter-clockwise direction (sometimes known as a “traffic circle”). Vehicles entering or exiting the roundabout must yield to all traffic including pedestrians.

When you approach a roundabout:

Slow down as you approach the roundabout.

Yield to pedestrians and bicyclists crossing the roadway.

Watch for signs and/or pavement markings that guide you or prohibit certain movements.

Enter the roundabout when there is a big enough gap in traffic.

Drive in a counter-clockwise direction. Do not stop or pass other vehicles.

Use your turn signals when you change lanes or exit the roundabout.

If you miss your exit, continue around until you return to your exit.


A crosswalk is the part of the roadway set aside for pedestrian traffic. Most intersections have a pedestrian crosswalk whether or not lines are painted on the street. Most crosswalks are located at corners, but they can also be located in the middle of the block. Before turning a corner, watch for people about to cross the street. Pedestrians have the right-of-way in marked or unmarked crosswalks.

Crosswalks are often marked with white lines. Yellow crosswalk lines may be painted at school crossings. Most often, crosswalks in residential areas are not marked.

Some crosswalks have flashing lights to warn you that pedestrians may be crossing. Look for pedestrians and be prepared to stop, whether or not the lights are flashing.


Collisions between two (or more) vehicles because of a failure to yield right of way is almost certainly preventable in every occurrence.  Drivers must exercise sound judgment and caution when merging, crossing intersections, or even pulling out of a parking space.

Properly yielding the right-of-way can help prevent accidents and save lives. Right-of-way is something that is given to others on the roadway.  

There may be times when you will need to give the right-of-way even when another driver is not following the rules of the road in order to avoid an accident.  

If you would like to learn more about honoring the right of way in a variety of situations, you can check with your state’s department of motor vehicles.  The booklets that are provided to student drivers contain a surprising amount of good information and practical tips.  Many states have placed these manuals on their web sites to make updates easier to process and to let everyone benefit from the easy access.