Rules of the Road

Knowing this universal driving principle answers the question of ‘when to yield’

Whether you’re in a car, on a bike or walking in Bellingham, you have to obey the rules of the road

City of Bellingham officials created this pedestrian safety video as part of a "Travel With Care" campaign to to reduce collisions between cars, bikes and pedestrians.
Up Next
City of Bellingham officials created this pedestrian safety video as part of a "Travel With Care" campaign to to reduce collisions between cars, bikes and pedestrians.

Question: I have a question regarding the traffic rules of a particular intersection in Bellingham.

The intersection of Alabama and Woburn has a right-turn lane with a yield sign (for drivers traveling south on Woburn towards Alabama).

My question is, if the light is green for Woburn traffic going both directions, does the northbound Woburn traffic making a left-hand turn onto Alabama yield to the southbound traffic making a right-hand turn on Alabama or is it the other way around?

A wager of one coffee is riding on the outcome of your answer, so we’re eager to learn the actual rule here.

Answer: I don’t often tackle a question that applies to a single location, but in this case the intersection at Alabama and Woburn makes a great stand-in for the problem of apparently conflicting traffic control devices.

Plus, I always like to weigh in on a wager. In the case of this intersection (and a few others I’ve driven through in the region) we have the bulk of the intersection controlled by traffic lights, and one small right turn lane controlled by a yield sign.

Before digging into the rules, I took a test drive through this intersection from both directions described in the question, just to see what felt right. Then I compared that to what I found in the RCW. And just to make sure I wasn’t off track, I talked with a local police officer who has a wealth of experience in traffic enforcement. All three seemed to align, so I feel pretty good about settling the bet.

woburn.jpg
The intersection at Alabama and Woburn streets in Bellingham shows the problem of apparently conflicting traffic control devices. Doug Dahl Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

From both a legal and practical perspective, the driver at the yield sign intending to turn right should yield the right-of-way to the driver with the green light intending to turn left. Here’s how I arrive at that conclusion, starting with the driver at the green light: The law states that a driver turning left in an intersection is required to yield to traffic approaching from the opposite direction. The driver at the yield sign is no longer approaching from the opposite direction but is moving toward the same direction as the green-light driver is headed, so the driver at the green light isn’t compelled to yield (based on this law).

Now if we look at the law that specifically addresses yield signs, it states that a driver approaching a yield sign shall yield the right-of-way to any vehicle in the intersection or approaching from another roadway so closely as to constitute a hazard. Based on this much broader requirement to yield, I’d conclude that the driver at the yield sign gives right-of-way to the driver with the green light.

Even if you don’t completely agree with me based on my interpretation of the law, let’s look at it practically. If two cars approach the intersection from opposite directions on Woburn, both intend to go west on Alabama, and both arrive at the intersection at the same time, there’s enough distance between the two of them that if they both go at the same time there won’t be a conflict; the driver at the yield sign will enter the westbound lane, followed by the driver at the green light, and it should all mesh together like clockwork. The only time there would really be a problem is if the driver at the yield sign decided to take that right turn after the driver at the green light had already entered the intersection, and we’ve already determined that a person with a yield sign has to give right-of-way to anyone already in the intersection.

And now for the real answer. When you’re approaching an unfamiliar or possibly confusing intersection, you don’t have time to look up the law, or even read an article trying to explain the law. So here’s a universal principle, rooted in a message repeated several times in the law, that can be applied in every driving situation: Don’t crash.

OK, the law says that drivers are required to “use due care” and avoid colliding with any person, vehicle or other stuff, but I’ve reduced it to two easy-to-remember words. Even if you think the other guy should yield, if you chose to take what you believe to be your right-of-way and it contributes to a crash, you’ve violated the fundamental rule of driving, which I’ll say again: Don’t crash.

In a confusing intersection, if your driving decision avoids a crash, it’s probably the right decision.

Follow more of our reporting on Rules of the Road

See all 9 stories

Doug Dahl, Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force, answers questions about road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices every Monday. Ask him a question using our form. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit TheWiseDrive.com.

  Comments