Rules of the Road

Can’t see around that fence or untrimmed shrub at an intersection? You’re not alone

Rules about fences and shrubs obstructing the view of drivers at intersections are generally found in the zoning section of county and municipal codes.
Rules about fences and shrubs obstructing the view of drivers at intersections are generally found in the zoning section of county and municipal codes. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Question: My view of oncoming traffic when making a left turn onto a busy street is obscured by a tall fence installed very close to the street. I cannot have a full view of cross-traffic without moving up very close to the busy street. This seems quite dangerous. Are there rules about fences or shrubs blocking views of traffic at corners where drivers are making turns?

Answer: I think most drivers at some point have encountered an intersection like you’ve described and asked the same question: “Isn’t there a law about this?” If you searched through the traffic section of the Revised Code of Washington you wouldn’t find anything.

And if you expanded your search into other sections of the RCW the best you might find is a law that allows the Department of Transportation to remove obstructions from the side of state highways.

Instead, the rules about fences and shrubs obstructing the view of drivers are generally found in the zoning section of county and municipal codes. You might think there should be something in the “Rules of the Road” section of the RCW that addresses this problem, but this is really more of a land-use situation.

Since this is a local ordinance instead of a state law, there are variations from one jurisdiction to the next. However, in checking numerous local ordinances on the topic, I found that they were all quite similar.

The key component of an ordinance addressing obstructed vision of traffic involves something called a vision triangle or vision clearance triangle. When a piece of property borders roads on two adjoining sides, as a corner lot does, a small area on the corner of the lot where those two roads meet is designated as a vision triangle.

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The setback for the triangle varies depending on the zoning and the type of street, typically falling somewhere between 10 and 30 feet. In order to ensure that drivers can see cross-traffic and street signs, property owners are restricted from building or planting anything tall in the vision triangle. Generally shrubs or fences are limited to three feet in height.

Now that we know there’s a law about obstructed views at intersections, who do you call to resolve the problem?

If it’s your neighbor’s property I guess it depends on how well you get along with your neighbor. If it’s a local business, the quickest route to action might be stopping in with a friendly request for some pruning or fence adjustment.

Assuming you have no idea who owns the property, I’d recommend contacting the code enforcement office for the city or county where the property is located. Code enforcement is often part of the Planning and Community Development office of local government, but may also be within a police department. In some jurisdictions you can report the vision obstruction online.

You may be reading this and thinking obstructed views aren’t such a big deal. If you compare crashes attributed to view obstruction with crashes caused by impaired, distracted or speeding drivers, you’re right. But based on crash frequency in a NHTSA study, I’d estimate that we had around 200,000 crashes nationally in 2015 that involved obstructed view as a factor. We could prevent a lot of crashes just by pruning some shrubs or lowering the height of a fence.

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.