So, you got to a stop sign intersection first, does that give you the right-of-way?

We talk about who has the right-of-way at a stop sign intersection, but the law doesn’t actually grant right-of-way; it states who must yield the right-of-way.
We talk about who has the right-of-way at a stop sign intersection, but the law doesn’t actually grant right-of-way; it states who must yield the right-of-way. The Wichita Eagle

Question 1: At a two-way stop intersection where cross-traffic doesn’t stop, what is the protocol if cars approach the stop signs at different times during heavy traffic and have conflicting proposed motions? If I am taking a left turn from one stop sign and waiting for cross-traffic to clear, and a car comes up to the other stop sign opposite me wanting to go straight, who is required to wait for the other? Would I be required to wait for the opposite car, even though I arrived at the intersection first?

Question 2: At a two-way stop intersection, does cross traffic more or less reset the “I was here first” rules for left hand turners?

Answer: When I get the same question from several people, it’s a good indicator that we don’t have a clear understanding on a particular subject.

Hopefully I won’t confuse things more with a riddle, inspired by this week’s questions: What is something you can never have, but will often give? The answer: right-of-way.

We talk about who has the right-of-way, but the law doesn’t actually grant right-of-way; it states who must yield the right-of-way. That may sound like I’m trying to make a difference where there isn’t one, but in practice it matters.

Before I answer the question, let’s consider a rule that everyone knows, as quoted from the Washington Driver Guide. “At a four-way stop, the driver reaching the intersection first goes first (after coming to a complete stop).”

So that’s the law, right? I searched the section of the Revised Code of Washington that covers right-of-way, but couldn’t find any law than made that statement. Instead, there are a few laws that spell out what to do at an intersection.

▪ When two vehicles approach or enter an intersection from different highways at approximately the same time, the vehicle on the left shall yield the right-of-way to the vehicle on the right (RCW 46.61.180).

▪ The driver of a vehicle intending to turn 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 as to constitute a hazard (RCW 46.61.185).

Squeezed between those to laws, there’s another that states that at an intersection with traffic control signals, if the power goes out, treat it like an all-way stop and follow the above two rules. (RCW 46.61.183).

I’ll add one more relevant right-of-way law, and then we’ll try to make sense of them all. RCW 46.61.190 states that after coming to a stop at an intersection, the driver shall yield the right-of-way to any vehicle in the intersection or on another roadway so closely as to constitute an immediate hazard.

None of these laws says specifically that the first one to an intersection is the first one to go, although you could make that argument based on the last law I listed.

I want to be clear; I’m not arguing against the “first there, first to go” approach to four-way stops. It works. I just want to point out that the law is more nuanced, and if we make that our main or only rule we can get ourselves into trouble.

Now let’s answer the original question.

I’ll admit, I didn’t reach this conclusion on my own. I was recently at a meeting with local law enforcement officers, so I asked them who had the right-of-way (or more correctly, who needed to yield the right-of-way). They unanimously stated that the car turning left needed to yield to the car going straight, no matter who got to the intersection first.

I countered that if both cars are stopped at the intersection waiting for traffic to clear, the car going straight: a) isn’t in the intersection yet, and b) doesn’t constitute a hazard, and that one of those two situations had to be present in order for the turning car to have to yield.

Experienced collision investigators that they are, they responded that if both drivers decided not to yield to the other, the turning car would hit the car going straight, and the fact that a collision resulted would be pretty good evidence that the car going straight presented a hazard. They made a good point.

This leads to a few other laws that, while not specific to right-of-way, should be part of every driver’s philosophy.

On several occasions the term “due care” comes up in traffic law. To oversimplify, it basically means this: Regardless of everything else written in the law, it’s your job as a driver to not get in a crash. If you’re unsure of what to do in a given traffic situation, do the thing that is least likely to result in hitting another car, person or object.

Sometimes that means waiting a little longer at an intersection to avoid a collision with someone who either doesn’t understand or has chosen to ignore the law.​

Road Rules is a regular column on road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices. Doug Dahl is the Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit Ask a question.