right-of-way traffic laws: more than good etiquette

Right-of-way laws, also known as failure-to-yield laws, are traffic rules that determine who's allowed to go first in a variety of driving situations. Understanding the nuances of these laws can help you avoid a costly moving violation, which could keep your driving record clean and your car insurance rates low.

traffic lights

Running a red light is a common moving violation that can lead to car accidents and serious injuries. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reports that red-light running caused almost 709 deaths and injured an estimated 126,000 in 2014 alone. And more than half of those killed weren't actually the drivers who ran the red light; in other words, passengers, pedestrians, bicyclists, and other drivers were the victims.

Here's how red-light runners are penalized:

  • Law enforcement: if your lead-footed friend Owen Outlaw runs a red light in a heavily trafficked road, the police officer may levy a serious charge like reckless driving. The severity of the violation and the risk involved influence the legal ramifications.
  • Driving record: depending on the state, a moving violation for ignoring a traffic signal could tack 2 to 4 points on Owen's driving record. Reckless driving can add more.

emergency vehicles and school buses

Emergency vehicles that are currently responding to a situation always have the right-of-way. When an emergency vehicle approaches traffic, you're required to immediately pull over to the side of the road at the first safe spot or come to a safe stop in traffic.

Drivers behind a school bus that's loading or unloading passengers are required to stop and wait at a safe distance. This rule also applies to intersections and other traffic situations.

Penalties for failing to yield to emergency vehicles and school buses break down like this:

  • Law enforcement: drivers who cause an accident involving one of these vehicles may face serious civil and criminal charges. Some states, like Pennsylvania, temporarily suspend the licenses of those who commit this violation.
  • Driving record: though some states may only issue a fine, many states will add 2 to 4 points, on average, to a driver's record.

four-way intersections

Controlled stops (intersections with stop signs) and uncontrolled stops (those without) are generally handled the same way. Most states, like California and Michigan, require that drivers leave an intersection in the exact same order that they arrived. If you and another driver appear at the same time, most states give right-of-way to the driver on the right-hand side.

  • Law enforcement: failure to stop at a stop sign is a common cause of accidents; if injuries are caused, the at-fault driver may receive a stiffer penalty such as a reckless driving charge.
  • Driving record: 2 to 4 points is the most common penalty.

crosswalks and pedestrians

Some states, like California, give pedestrians the right-of-way regardless of the traffic situation. Other states, like Georgia, only give pedestrians the right-of-way if they're at least halfway across a marked intersection or pedestrian walkway — otherwise motorists about to enter the intersection have the right to go first. Other states take a middle-of-the-road approach. If pedestrians are already in the crosswalk and the light or signal changes, they still have the right to continue on their way.

  • Law enforcement: if no one is injured, drivers may only receive a traffic citation. But if injuries are involved, failure to yield to pedestrians could be upgraded to reckless driving or other criminal and/or civil charges.
  • Driving record: depending on the circumstance, drivers may see 2 to 4 points added to their records.

roundabouts or traffic circles/islands

Most drivers would agree that roundabouts can create some confusing right-of-way dilemmas. If you find yourself in a roundabout, it's generally wise to merge when there's a clear gap in traffic. Sudden slowing or stopping as you enter a roundabout can lead to a serious accident, so it's best avoided whenever possible.

  • Law enforcement: some states, like Oregon, treat a faulty roundabout maneuver as a failure to yield. Other states have wrong-way laws for drivers who enter a roundabout in the wrong direction.
  • Driving record: depending on the jurisdiction, a failure-to-yield ticket may add 2 to 4 points. Wrong-way tickets can add up to 5 points on a record.

right-of-way laws and your car insurance rate

Following right-of-way laws at stop signs, traffic signals, crosswalks, and roundabouts is a key element in safe driving. It's worth noting again that states may handle these laws differently. To review your state's right-of-way laws, visit your state DMV's website.

If you consistently follow these and other traffic rules, you could enjoy lower car insurance rates — and the longer a clean driving record is maintained, the more you can expect to save.

ATS compiles stats on red lights, injuries, and deaths (PDF)
Learn just how dangerous it is to run a red light.

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