Road Rules: Right-of-way on one-lane roads


Question: There’s a short stretch of road I travel frequently, Drayton Harbor Road, that is reduced to one lane because part of the road fell into the ocean during a storm. There are stop signs on either end of the one-lane road. Most of the time drivers alternate one car in each direction, but sometimes when several cars are lined up on one end, they’ll all go through at once. Shouldn’t we be alternating? What does the law say?

Answer: The law says a lot of things about a lot of things, but not much about this. I might even be underselling how little the law addresses this situation. I can’t find any law in the Revised Code of Washington specific to your question. Maybe that’s not surprising. We don’t typically build one-lane roads and expect traffic from both directions. This scenario seems limited to unexpected road failures, construction zones and one-lane bridges in rural areas.

If you can’t quote the law, who is right? And how do we measure rightness, if that’s even a word? (I just checked; it’s a word.) Is it the person who is the safest, the most courteous, or the most efficient? And if it’s courteousness, to whom does the courteousness apply? And is this too many confusing questions in a row? My bias is toward safety, but this seems like a situation where neither cars alternating one-at-a-time or several cars going through at once has a clear safety advantage.

When stop signs show up in the law they’re at intersections, but maybe we can take some principles as guidance for our situation. The Washington Driver Guide states, “At a four-way stop the driver reaching the intersection first, goes first (after coming to a complete stop).”

Inferring from the driver guide, you might conclude that drivers should take turns at the stop signs. However, that explanation is a simplification of the law, which states, in part, that drivers “shall yield the right-of-way to any vehicle in the intersection or approaching on another roadway so closely as to constitute an immediate hazard.” Based on this, it appears that if several cars go through the one-lane road at once, the car on the other side should yield to all of them.

Practically speaking, when you arrive at the stop sign, you’re at the whim of how the drivers on the other side interpret the rules. If the second car, and third, fourth and fifth all think it’s OK to follow along, there’s not much you can do, short of a withering stare.

Maybe we should alternate because it’s courteous to the driver on the other side, so they can get through quicker. But if you’re car number two, wouldn’t it be courteous to the cars behind you to set an example of following the lead car and getting your entire line through more quickly?

From an overall efficiency perspective, it makes more sense to have a string of cars drive through in one direction until there’s a gap, and then another string from the other direction. For example, you don’t see flaggers on a one-lane road alternating one car at a time.

Ultimately though, I can’t provide a solid backup from the law for either point of view. Whether you’re in camp courtesy or on team efficiency, have some grace for the other drivers who might not share your point of view and mean no harm to you.

No matter where you come down on it, the overarching principle is to travel safely. Or as the law states, “Exercise due care and caution as circumstances shall require.”

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


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