What Does Yielding the Right of Way Mean?

When to yield the right of way is one of the first things new drivers learn. Yet right-of-way accidents are some of the most common, and they often come with fatal results. 

Failure to yield the right of way can come with some steep consequences, so you should know how to determine who has the right of way — and what happens if you fail to yield it.

What Is the Right of Way?

At its simplest, “right of way” refers to which driver has the right to use the road and which has an obligation to wait. 

You might associate yielding with the triangular red-and-white yield sign posted where roads or lanes merge. But even if they don’t see a single yield sign, most drivers yield the right of way every time they get behind the wheel. 

Common examples of when drivers yield the right of way include: 

  • Pulling out of a driveway or parking space
  • Making a left turn at a green light
  • Making a right turn at a red light
  • Entering a roundabout
  • Stopping at a stop sign
  • Merging onto the highway

All these familiar driving situations have something in common: you can only drive if there’s no oncoming traffic. If traffic prevents you from taking any of the above actions safely, you have to wait; in other words, you have to yield the right of way. 

How Is Right of Way Determined?

Much of the time, who has the right of way is a matter of common sense. You shouldn’t pull out of your driveway or make a right on red if there’s an oncoming vehicle likely to hit you. 

However, driving situations aren’t always simple. Rights of way in trickier driving scenarios are covered in driver’s education class, but those details tend to fade with age. 

Here’s a quick review of some basic right-of-way rules:

  • A driver at a red light or stop sign must always yield
  • A turning driver must yield to one traveling in a straight line
  • A driver turning left must yield to a driver turning right
  • At three- or four-way stops, the driver who arrived first has the right of way

Knowing these basic right of way rules can save you from being found at fault in a car accident.  

What Are Common Reasons for Right-of-Way Accidents?

Right-of-way accidents happen in many different situations. 

Some common reasons for right-of-way accidents include: 

However, one of the most common reasons that right-of-way accidents happen is driver ignorance. 

Not every driver knows or remembers rules like the ones listed above. Exercise caution in right-of-way situations. Even if you have the legal right of way, you might be sharing the road with a driver who doesn’t know that. Practice defensive driving and make sure the other driver is yielding before you proceed. 

What Happens If the Right of Way Isn’t Yielded?

If you fail to yield the right of way, you’ll likely be found at fault for the accident. This can come with serious consequences. Fines, tickets, charges, and even lawsuits may await drivers found guilty of a failure to yield the right of way. 

In 2019, failure to yield the right of way was the third-leading cause of fatal motor vehicle accidents. Even when death isn’t the outcome, a right-of-way accident can lead to serious damage — and the driver who failed to yield can be held financially responsible. 

If you hope to avoid a right-of-way accident, you can take a few basic steps. Know your state’s driving rules, drive safely — and when in doubt, it’s better to yield. 

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