Right of Way Rules in California: What You Need to Know
Understanding right of way rules in California for traveling on the state’s highways and streets can sometimes be confusing, even for those who have always lived here. There are many exceptions to the rules in certain circumstances, and it is essential up to drivers, as well as pedestrians, to understand the many legal nuances.
If you are injured in a car accident, you will likely need guidance about who is at fault according to the law. Working with skilled California auto accident attorneys can give you a better chance of ensuring your rights are protected, and your claim is strong.
How Does California Define the Right-of-Way?
Generally, California defines the right-of-way as allowing another driver or pedestrian to proceed first when they both arrive at the same location. All individuals are admonished to use all care and diligence to avoid accidents, which can be difficult when the right-of-way rules can vary so broadly.
However, the California Vehicle Code has several sections that describe specific situations and can be a solid guide. For example:
- If you are stopped by the roadside, yield to oncoming traffic before reentering the travel lanes.
- If you are leaving a parking lot or driveway, yield to pedestrians and other vehicles.
- At a four-way stop, make a complete stop and follow the rules for who goes first (listed below).
- When driving on a freeway or divided highway, yield to other vehicles when making a left or right turn.
- When making a right turn into traffic, always yield to pedestrians and bicyclists on the sidewalk or roadside.
- When making a left turn, you must always yield to every other vehicle near you.
- At three-way intersections, drivers on the larger road have the right-of-way.
- At intersections without stop signs or lights, yield the right-of-way to those already at or in the intersection, as well as to pedestrians and bicyclists.
- All pedestrians have the right-of-way in crosswalks, whether the crosswalks are marked or not, and even if they are in the middle of a block.
A four-way stop often remains confusing to most motorists, no matter how many years they have been driving. In general, the first vehicle to arrive at the stop has the right-of-way. After that, each driver who arrives after the first car is allowed to go in the order they arrived. If you stop behind a car, you must still stop when you reach the sign and cannot simply roll through.
Who has the right of way at an intersection varies depending on the scenario:
- If multiple vehicles pull up to a three or four-way stop simultaneously, motorists must yield to the vehicle most right.
- If making a left-hand turn, motorists must yield to any vehicle in present danger.
- Motorists must yield to traffic on the through-road when the intersection isn’t marked.
- At any stop, vehicles must yield to the first-arriving pedestrian, bicycle, or motorist.
As with any traffic situation, it’s advisable to use caution and respond to the circumstances before moving through a four-way stop.
Other Unusual Right-of-Way Situations
There are some circumstances that are uncommon, and drivers may be unfamiliar with what to do. For example, when a controlled intersection has traffic lights, but they are either not working or malfunctioning, drivers must treat it as a four-way stop. If a police officer is directing traffic, then they must obey the officer and ignore the malfunctioning lights.
Drivers wishing to make a U-turn across oncoming lanes of traffic must follow the same rules as when they want to make a left turn. They are required to yield the right-of-way to all vehicles and pedestrians. If there is a left-turn arrow at an intersection, drivers should wait until it turns green to complete their U-turn. They should not attempt a U-turn if there is a sign prohibiting this action.
When emergency vehicles are present, all drivers and pedestrians should yield the right-of-way. This allows the first responders to get through traffic more quickly and prevents accidents. If possible, drivers should pull over to the side of the road closest to them to allow the emergency vehicles to pass. Pedestrians should not enter the roadway or attempt to use crosswalks until the emergency vehicles have passed and normal traffic has resumed.
Right-of-Way for Pedestrians
The basic rules governing pedestrians on California roads are:
- Motorists must stop within five feet of a crosswalk to let pedestrians pass.
- Vehicles must yield the right of way to blind persons.
- Motorists are prohibited from passing other vehicles waiting at a crosswalk.
- Pedestrians must follow traffic laws.
In general, pedestrians always have the right-of-way under California law. Even if they fail to follow the rules of the road, the law still requires that motorists yield the right-of-way.
Who Is Considered a Pedestrian?
Pedestrians are defined as anyone not in a motor vehicle or on a bicycle. People on roller skates, skateboards, tricycles, or wheelchairs are all considered pedestrians. Young children are often more at risk because they are smaller and don’t have a full concept of staying safe around motor vehicles.
According to the UC Berkeley Safe Transportation Research and Education Center, pedestrian fatalities in California account for 26% of all traffic-related deaths. The rate of pedestrian deaths has increased nearly 66% in a recent 10-year period. To help reduce these crashes, it’s important to follow some common sense guidelines, including:
- Be cautious when pedestrians are in the area and look out for them in unexpected places.
- Do not stop your vehicle in a crosswalk.
- Make eye contact, if possible, to ensure the pedestrian sees your vehicle.
- Do not go around a vehicle that has stopped at an intersection because you may not see a pedestrian crossing in front of that vehicle.
- If you drive an electric or hybrid vehicle, remember that pedestrians may not hear your vehicle approaching.
- Young, disabled, or elderly pedestrians may require additional time to cross roadways, so exercise caution if the light changes before they have completed crossing.
- Never drive on a sidewalk or restricted promenade road intended for pedestrian-only traffic.
Right-of-Way for Bicyclists
Bike lanes are common in many cities and towns, allowing bicyclists the right to take the lane if it is not wide enough for riders and pedestrians. However, they must obey all the rules of the road, just the same as automobile drivers. While they are given the right-of-way in many instances, they must yield it to pedestrians.
On larger roads with higher speed limits, cyclists are entitled to use a full lane if they can keep up with traffic. If not, the law requires them to use a bike lane or keep to the far right side of the road to reduce the risk of auto accidents. Motorists must also respect the bicyclist’s space and provide “Three Feet for Safety.”
Finally, automobile drivers must yield right-of-way to bicyclists at intersections where the driver is making a right turn. If a bicyclist is approaching the intersection in the bike lane, the driver must wait until the biker has passed by before making their turn.
While bicyclists must use caution to protect themselves, the driver has a higher responsibility to prevent injury to the biker.
Consequences for Ignoring the Right of Way Laws in California
Every year, California sees thousands of car accidents on its roads. California’s right-of-way laws exist to maintain order on busy streets. Failing to yield the right of way often causes immense property damage and bodily damage, from catastrophic injuries to fatal injuries. In fact, more than 3,000 people lost their lives in California traffic collisions in the last reporting year. Failing to yield the right of way is the fourth leading cause of critical car accident injuries and fatalities .
According to the Insurance Information Institute, failing to yield the right of way caused 4,239 fatal car accidents nationwide, and 7% of all traffic accident fatalities were due to a right-of-way violation. Laws can vary by state or municipality, and some drivers may fail to yield to the proper vehicle, bicyclist, or pedestrian.
Penalties for Failing to Yield the Right-of-Way
In addition to the potential to cause personal injury to others, drivers who fail to obey the right-of-way rules in California can be subject to both criminal and civil penalties. The act of failing to yield the right-of-way is considered an infraction and can result in fines and points added to your license. With enough points in a short time period, you could lose your driving privileges.
However, much more important is the risk of consequences if you cause a car accident or pedestrian accident. You may be charged with criminal offenses and be held accountable by victims through a personal injury lawsuit. If convicted, those at fault can face up time in state prison. Victims can seek compensation with the help of an experienced personal injury attorney in California.
Learn More About Right-of-Way Violations and the Legal Consequences
At Curtis Legal Group, our California car accident attorneys know what to do in a car accident and have over 70 years of experience holding responsible parties accountable. If you or someone you love was injured by a driver ignoring right-of-way laws, we are ready to listen to your concerns and answer your questions during a free initial consultation. Contact us through our online form to schedule a meeting with a skilled California auto accident attorney today.