Road Rules: Who has the right-of-way at an intersection with no stop signs?

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Question: I’d like to know who has the right-of-way at an intersection with no stop signs.

In this case, it’s an urban collector street that crosses a short local street with cul-de-sacs at each end. I have argued that the urban collector street has the right-of-way because it crosses a street with dead ends, so it doesn’t matter about the person to the right having the right-of-way.

Answer: Sometimes what feels right in your gut doesn’t align with what’s actually in the law.

I think you know where this is going. Before we get to the answer though, you mentioned that one road is an urban collector. Maybe we should be clear about what that means.

For people who love to put things in categories, let me give you some buckets into which you can sort roads. The Federal Highway Administration and, by extension, our state, classify roads into groups, coded one through seven, based on their function (and thus called Functional Classification Codes):

1. Interstate;

2. Other freeways and expressways;

3. Principal arterial;

4. Minor arterial;

5. Major collector;

6. Minor collector;

7. Local.

And since transportation trivia is always a hit at social events, you might be interested to know that prior to 2010, each of those categories was also sorted into urban and rural.

The main factor determining how to classify a road is the character of service they provide. Do they serve a neighborhood? Do they get you from a neighborhood to a main road? Do they carry more volume and take you longer distances? Are they higher speed and limited access?

Although there’s a bit more involved, you could get pretty close on the classifications just by answering those questions. If you want to know for sure, you can check the Washington State Department of Transportation’s functional classification map.

What does all that have to do with the original question? As it turns out, not much.

Right-of-way mostly isn’t determined by the functional classification of a roadway. In an uncontrolled intersection (that’s not an intersection rebelling against its parents, it just means it doesn’t have any stop or yield signs) drivers are to yield to other vehicles already in the intersection.

When two vehicles arrive at an intersection at the same time, the driver on the left yields to the vehicle on the right. And a driver making a left turn yields to a vehicle approaching from the opposite direction, which is in the intersection or close enough to constitute a hazard.

The status of a road as local or collector doesn’t come into play.

I used the word “mostly” earlier, because the law does state that when a non-arterial road meets up with an arterial, drivers on the non-arterial road are to yield the right-of-way to drivers on the arterial. However, you’re not expected to know instinctively which road is which. The right-of-way is clarified by use of a stop sign on the non-arterial road.

While not exactly an uncontrolled intersection, there is one other instance I’m aware of when a driver has to yield without a stop sign: When an alley intersects with a roadway, the driver in the alley yields to all vehicles approaching on the roadway.

In your question you said, “I have argued ...” which implies that you’ve had this debate with someone. In the interest of increasing driver knowledge, maybe you should share this article with them and let them know they’re right.

On the other hand, in the interest of self-pride, maybe you want to keep this information to yourself. I’ll leave that for you to decide.

Doug Dahl is a manager with the Washington Traffic Safety Commission, Region 11 and publishes TheWiseDrive.com.

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