Road Rules: Left turns and right-of-ways


Question: There is an intersection that I often use which is a two-way stop, where the arterial cross-street does not stop. Often cars are stopped at both stop signs waiting for the arterial to clear. Normally at a stop sign, the car that arrives first goes first. However, at this intersection, one of the stopped cars is almost always turning left, and the turning car usually yields to the opposing car going straight, regardless of who stopped first.

Can you confirm that a two-way stop is governed by the first-stopped, first-going rule?

Answer: There’s a moment in “Back to the Future Part 2,” when Biff’s thugs confront Marty, saying, “Look, we can do this the easy way or the hard way.” Then they knock him unconscious, in what they call the easy way. I promise, the easy way to answer this question does not involve getting clubbed in the head. But the hard way will make you a better driver.

We can find the easy way in the Washington Driver Guide. It states, “Drivers turning left must yield to oncoming vehicles, pedestrians and bicyclists.” But wait, you say. What about the “first-stopped, first-going” rule? According to the driver guide, that only applies to four-way stops. Here’s what it says: “At a four-way stop the driver reaching the intersection first, goes first (after coming to a complete stop).”

Now for the hard way. You won’t find what I quoted from the driver guide in the Revised Code of Washington, at least not word-for-word. Those instructions in the guide are a simplification of the actual law.

Here’s the law on left turns (abbreviated): “The driver of a vehicle intending to turn to the left within an intersection shall yield the right-of-way to any vehicle approaching from the opposite direction which is within the intersection or so close thereto as to constitute an immediate hazard.”

The driver guide is close on this one. If you were at an intersection without stop signs, of course you’d yield to an oncoming car before taking a left. But does a car at a stop sign on the other side of an intersection constitute an “immediate hazard?”

Before I answer that, let’s look at some similar language in the law about vehicles entering a stop or yield intersection. The law states that after stopping, the driver “shall yield the right-of-way to any vehicle in the intersection approaching on another roadway so closely as to constitute an immediate hazard.” This is the law that we’ve simplified into “first-stopped, first-going.” Note that the law doesn’t specify a four-way stop.

I suppose you could interpret the law to mean that if you pull into the intersection before the car across from you does, they now have to yield to you. But if the car across from you doesn’t share your interpretation and the two of you collide, the interpretation that really matters is the one that the investigating officer and the judge hold. I’ve talked with officers about this, and they agree that, barring some extraneous circumstance, in a crash the person turning left is going to be the one at fault.

We often want our rules to be clear and absolute, like what we find in the driver guide. That’s a good place to start, but the laws I referenced are more than just driving instructions. They share an underlying theme: doing what it takes to avoid a crash.

Yes, follow the instructions in the driver guide. That’s the easy part. But the hard part is even more important; as you drive, thoughtfully consider the ultimate goal – arriving safely.

Doug Dahl is a manager with the Washington Traffic Safety Commission, Region 11 and publishes


No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here