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Following a car accident, you may hear a lot of talk about “right of way,” or “failing to yield.” In heavy traffic, you need to know when to yield and when you have right of way—and how it impacts you if you do suffer injuries in a serious accident.
How do you know who caused the accident, and who had the right of way? A look at these common scenarios can help you make decisions about when to yield and how to determine liability following an accident.
Red lights and stop signs exist to help control the flow of traffic through intersections. They help clearly designate who has right of way at any given time, whether traffic flows smoothly through the intersection or moves in fits and starts due to changing driver patterns. Traffic laws establish who can move through an intersection when, and the steps they need to take to do so safely.
At an intersection with stop signs at every point, all drivers should stop as they move toward the intersection. Usually, the driver who reaches the stop sign first has right of way: that driver can pull through the intersection first. However, if multiple drivers arrive at the intersection at the same time, you should yield to the car on your right. Cars can then proceed through the intersection in an orderly manner, keeping everyone as safe as possible and preventing potential accidents.
At a stop sign where the cross traffic does not have a sign, the traffic moving from that direction does not have to come to a stop. In that case, the drivers coming from directions with a stop sign should stop and wait for a break in traffic, then proceed safely through the intersection.
In some cases, however, drivers may choose to ignore stop signs or fail to yield right of way. Unfortunately, this can quickly lead to a T-bone collision in the intersection. Drivers who fail to yield right of way in an intersection may be liable for any accident that occurs in that intersection.
Even in an intersection that appears empty at first glance, drivers should come to a complete stop before proceeding through the stop sign. Sometimes, a pedestrian or bicycle rider may try to come through the intersection. Many drivers can miss the presence of those smaller entities on the road, especially if they do not take the time to stop and look twice. A driver who does not stop at all at a stop sign may also share or even bear full liability for an accident even when another driver approaches the intersection dangerously or recklessly.
Flashing red lights: a note. At some intersections, flashing red lights—a single red light, rather than the three-light traffic light—may serve the same purpose as a stop sign. Like a stop sign, all drivers on all sides of traffic should come to a complete stop before proceeding through the intersection. Drivers should come to a complete stop, look to make sure that no one else has entered the intersection, and then proceed as if moving through a green light or after stopping at a stop sign.
Traffic signals control the flow of traffic through intersections. A green light or green arrow designates when drivers have the right to move through the intersection, while a red light indicates that drivers should stop. Yellow lights provide a vital warning that the light has changed and will soon be red, allowing the other lane of traffic to pass through the intersection; however, a driver who has a yellow light has right of way over a driver with a red light.
Of course, some exceptions do apply to that rule. A solid green light over a left turn lane, for example, usually indicates that the traffic in that lane can turn left if the lane remains clear. Drivers in that lane should yield to oncoming traffic, rather than simply heading through the intersection without stopping.
Drivers may also have the right to turn right on a red light when no cross traffic moves through the intersection. However, when cross traffic moves through the intersection, drivers must yield to oncoming traffic and remain stopped in the intersection until that traffic has moved out of the way. In some cases, that may mean waiting for a green light. Green arrows indicate that the driver does not need to yield to oncoming traffic, but rather that the driver has the right of way to proceed through the intersection.
On the other hand, some red lights do not allow a right turn on red, even if traffic otherwise seems clear. In these cases, a sign over the light will clearly indicate this change in the usual flow of traffic. If a driver turns right on red at a light that has a “no right on red” indicator, that driver may face fines and penalties as well as bearing liability for an accident.
Managing yellow lights effectively. A yellow light should indicate “proceed with caution,” not “gun it before it changes to red.” It shows that the light will change to red very soon, usually within a matter of seconds, and that drivers should exercise care before entering the intersection. Unfortunately, many drivers feel that a yellow light starts a race. Instead of slowing down to ensure that they can move safely through the intersection, they may speed up to try to beat the yellow light. Because they know that a police officer cannot ticket them as long as they cross the line into the intersection before the light turns red, they may try to rush through the intersection to save time and reach their destination faster.
Unfortunately, this strategy may substantially increase the risk of injury to drivers coming through the intersection. Some lights have only a brief gap between the end of a yellow light and the beginning of a green light for oncoming traffic. Moving through the intersection at this point could cause difficulty: who has right of way? A driver with a green light may assume that he has right of way and proceed through the intersection, only to find a driver who raced the yellow light still crossing.
Drivers who try to quickly jump through yellow lights may also struggle to safely navigate traffic on the other side of the intersection: focused on the light itself, they may fail to note stalled or stopped traffic ahead.
Instead of moving through the intersection at a high rate of speed the moment the light turns yellow, drivers should carefully evaluate the intersection before moving through it and judge their rate of speed compared to when the light turned yellow. If you need to put your foot down on the accelerator and increase your rate of speed to get into the intersection before the light turns red, consider coming to a stop and waiting for the next light instead.
Safely navigating red light intersections. If you come up to an intersection with a green light clearly showing, you should proceed through that intersection along with the normal flow of traffic. Carefully pay attention to cross streets, but do not feel that you need to stop to proceed through the intersection safely.
On the other hand, if you need to stop at a red light, especially if your car sits right at the line, first to move when the light changes, you may want to evaluate the intersection before you drive. Some drivers, especially those who become distracted by something in the car while stopped, may simply accelerate as soon as the light turns green, assuming that other drivers stopped when the light for the cross traffic turned red.
Unfortunately, not all drivers will stop as smoothly or effectively as they should. Sometimes, drivers may need longer than anticipated to get through the intersection. Trying to race a red light could end in a driver still in the intersection when the light turns red, while stalled traffic on the opposite side of the intersection could end up filling the intersection as more cars move through it, making it more difficult for each progressive vehicle to move through the intersection before the light changes.
Pay careful attention while behind the wheel of your car, even while stopped at a red light. Do not give in to the temptation to check text messages or change settings on your radio and lose track of the flow of traffic. Instead, maintain awareness of everything taking place in the intersection so that you can determine when you can safely proceed through it.
Note, too, what traffic does on the opposite side of the intersection before you move through it. If traffic has backed up to the intersection and does not seem to move, your vehicle moving forward could cause a traffic jam that prevents cross traffic from moving if the light changes. Worse, if an inattentive driver fails to note your vehicle in the intersection, it could cause serious injury. Instead, if you notice traffic piling up, wait until you have room to get all the way through the intersection before moving your vehicle.
Yield signs clearly indicate that drivers in the lane with the yield sign need to yield to oncoming traffic. Sometimes, that may mean that drivers in those lanes can merge seamlessly into traffic in another lane, or that they can easily proceed on their journeys, since nothing fills the lane that can get in their way. On the other hand, if drivers pull up to a yield sign in heavy traffic, they may need to stop and wait for an opening in traffic before they can move forward.
Yield signs are often present on on-ramps and in intersections without heavy traffic. They allow drivers to keep traveling without having to pause in times of low traffic, but help govern who bears right of way in specific scenarios.
Yield signs help govern the flow of traffic and make it easier to determine who bears right of way at any given moment. They can also, however, add to the complexity of your drive or make it harder for you to determine when you should move into traffic. In general, if you can move through a yield sign without stopping and safely merge into traffic or enter an empty road, you can do so. If, on the other hand, you need to wait for an adequate opening or the flow of traffic does not leave adequate room for your vehicle, you may want to come to a stop.
Check your state laws regarding yield signs and merging, especially merging onto highways. Some states do not want you to stop before merging when using on-ramps, and you may face penalties if you mistakenly block traffic.
In an intersection without signs, it can prove more difficult to determine who has right of way. However, busy lanes of traffic usually have right of way. If you need to pull out into traffic from a parking lot, for example, you should yield to oncoming traffic and allow it to flow smoothly, rather than simply proceeding into the road without taking the time to look for traffic.
Traffic already in an intersection has the right of way. You cannot move your car through another vehicle, so you will need to wait until the other car has moved through the intersection safely before you can proceed. If you strike a car that has already entered an intersection, you will almost always bear liability for the accident and for any injuries caused by those actions. Check carefully to make sure that another vehicle has not edged too far out into traffic, which could cause you to clip the front of the vehicle if you do not yield and allow that car into traffic.
If you arrive at the intersection at a similar time to another vehicle, the vehicle that arrives first can move through the intersection first.
Parking lots offer multiple opportunities for accidents. In a parking lot, you may not have clear lines and signs designating right of way. Drivers may need to make decisions based on safety, caution, and reasonable right of way, rather than following clear traffic signals.
Some rules of thumb:
Keeping up with right of way in a parking lot can prove particularly important. You might travel at a lower rate of speed in a parking lot, but you can still cause an accident with serious injury and immense consequences. When in doubt, always yield to other drivers or pedestrians in the parking lot. An accident in the parking lot could prevent both of you from safely finishing your errands or reaching your destination.
In some parking lots, cars can move both directions through the lot, up and down the lanes as they please. These parking lots usually have adequate room for two large vehicles to pass one another safely.
In other parking lots, however, arrows clearly indicate that traffic should only travel in one direction as cars traverse those lanes. In most cases, those parking lots will also angle their spaces, making it very difficult for a driver to navigate safely into those spaces from the opposite direction. While these lanes must still have adequate room for two cars to pass one another, it can quickly turn into a tight fit, especially if both drivers occupy large vehicles. Pay careful attention to these directional indicators and make sure that you do not mistakenly go the wrong way down the lane, which could increase the risk of an accident.
People can get unexpectedly vicious about their parking spaces, especially in heavy traffic or when pursuing a spot close to the front of the lot. Sometimes, two drivers may end up in a conflict over a single parking space.
Who has the right of way?
In general, the driver that comes to a parking space first has right of way. A driver traveling the wrong way down a single-direction lane does not have right of way for a parking space that he or she cannot safely navigate his vehicle into. However, if traffic can travel both directions down the lane, and if the driver can safely navigate into that space, the driver who arrives at the space first usually has right of way to that space, even if one driver can turn right into the space and the other driver needs to turn left.
However, keep in mind that conflict over a parking space can quickly result in an accident that leads to significant property damage and severe injuries. If another driver aggressively goes after a parking space, even one you consider “yours,” you may want to back up and allow that driver to have the parking space, even if it poses a temporary inconvenience for you. Remember that a convenient parking space does not have the same value as your vehicle or person.
Sometimes, you may encounter a driver who fails to yield. That driver may plow through traffic, ignore common sense and rules governing the right of way in a parking lot, or ignore yield signs and attempt to merge even with inadequate room. In the case of an accident, that driver may bear liability for the other party’s injuries.
That does not necessarily mean, however, that you should never yield to a driver behaving aggressively. If you notice an aggressive driver, whether in a parking lot or on the road, yielding to that driver can help prevent a serious accident. Aggressive drivers may cause rollover accidents, T-bone collisions, sideswipe collisions, or even head-on collisions, depending on the severity of the accident.
Drivers involved in those accidents may suffer severe injuries, including:
You cannot take back the consequences of motor vehicle accidents. You can, however, yield in oncoming traffic in the first place, which may prevent you from suffering serious injuries in a crash. Paying attention to the road around you can make it easier to avoid a potential accident. Following the rules of the road can give you a better idea of when to legally yield to other drivers. Sometimes, you may also want to yield to drivers in other circumstances as described below.
Instead of safely navigating through traffic, a driver swerves unpredictably or changes rates of speed with seemingly no rhyme or reason. You cannot predict what the driver will do next. He may signal that he intends to merge toward you, or he may simply try to merge into traffic, then swerve back over again, as though he cannot decide if he has room or not.
In general, if you notice a driver behaving erratically, you should yield, then drop your rate of speed to get away from the erratic driver. You do not want to end up in an accident because of a driver texting and driving or driving while under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
Merging can bring out the worst in many drivers, especially in heavy traffic. The traffic in the primary lane on a highway or interstate usually has right of way, and a merging driver should never cut off traffic or sideswipe another vehicle in the effort to get over.
However, that does not necessarily mean that you should not yield to those drivers. In heavy traffic, it can prove very difficult to get over. Some drivers may wait until the last second to merge over, rather than trying to merge over early and safely. Others may struggle to find enough room. At common merge sites, the “zipper” trick works best: each car on the highway backs off far enough to allow one driver over, and each driver trying to merge leaves enough room in front of him for the other car to get over.
While you do not legally have to leave room for another driver to merge, safe merging practices, including yielding and allowing room for another driver to get over, can make the road safer for everyone.
Failure to yield, especially failure to yield safely, can cause serious accidents with severe injuries, often with long-term consequences. In many cases, the victims of those accidents may end up in a battle to prove who caused the accident.
The driver who failed to yield may bear primary liability for an accident that occurs due to that failure: for example, a driver that ignores a red light or fails to stop at a stop sign may clearly bear liability for the accident. In some cases, however, the driver that had right of way through the intersection or on the road may also share liability for the accident. For example, the driver may share liability in some of these scenarios.
Imagine that you tried to merge into oncoming traffic. You had adequate room for your vehicle and started to fit it over, but another driver in that lane sped up or slowed down unexpectedly. Later, it comes out that the driver, instead of paying attention to the road, had his eyes on his phone. He had the right of way, but his actions caused the accident.
In that case, while you may share liability for trying to merge without having enough room for your vehicle, you may share liability with a texting driver.
You arrive at a familiar intersection: one you drive through regularly. You know approximately how much room you need to move through the intersection, and you had more than adequate room to do so safely. You may not even have seen another car anywhere in the area. A speeding driver approaches faster than the safe speed, causing you to crash into her—or vice versa—instead of proceeding safely through the intersection.
Keep in mind that a driver already in the intersection has right of way. For example, if you stalled in the middle of the intersection, a speeding vehicle cannot plow into you and claim that the driver had right of way. That means that if you had already proceeded well through the intersection, and the other driver failed to yield to you, she may bear liability.
Following a failure to yield accident, make sure you take the right steps to protect yourself.
The actions you take immediately after the accident can make a huge difference in the compensation you ultimately receive for your injuries.
John Gomez founded the firm alone in 2005. Today, John acts as President and Lead Trial Attorney. He has been voted by his peers as a top ten San Diego litigator in three separate fields: Personal Injury, Insurance and Corporate Litigation. Since 2000, he has recovered over $800 million in settlements and verdicts for his clients with more than 160 separate recoveries of one million dollars or more. A prolific trial lawyer, John has tried to jury verdict more than 60 separate cases.
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