California Right of Way Laws

Learn when to let the other guy go first.

California’s “right of way” laws determine who can proceed first when one or more travelers are at an intersection at the same time. Who has the right to proceed depends on the where the encounter takes place and whether the participants are traveling on foot, in vehicles, on horses, or in emergency vehicles. In most cases, the law states which traveler should let the other continue before proceeding. Letting the other traveler continue first is called “yielding the right of way.”

In Vehicles at Three- and Four-Way Intersections

In general , if your vehicle and another vehicle reach an intersection at the same time, the vehicle on the left should yield to the vehicle on the right, letting that vehicle go first. However, here are some exceptions:

Three-way stop. At a three-way intersection -- where one of the two roads end at the intersection – that has no stop signs, the vehicle travelling on the road that ends must yield to the vehicles on the road that continues. At three-way intersections with stop signs, vehicles on the left must yield to vehicles on the right.

Broken traffic lights. When a traffic light isn’t working, you must stop before entering the intersection, and you may continue when it’s safe. At a four-way intersection, if you reach the intersection at the same time as another vehicle, let the vehicle on your right go first. At a three-way stop where the traffic signal is not working, a vehicle travelling on the road that does stops must yield to the vehicles on the road that continues.

Signals or signs. Of course, if the intersection has working traffic signals or signs that give certain travelers the right of way, you must follow the instructions of those signals or signs. For example, a yield sign indicates that the travelers on the road that intersects with yours have the right of way. You must yield to that traffic until it is safe to proceed.

Similarly, when the intersection is controlled by stop signs in only one direction, the vehicles traveling in the direction without the stop signs have the right of way, and the vehicles at the stop signs must yield to the crossing traffic.

When one vehicle intends to make a left hand turn. When one car wants to turn or make a U turn left at an intersection, that vehicle must yield to the oncoming traffic. However, if that vehicle has properly signaled that intention and waited for a safe time to turn, then any oncoming traffic must yield to the turning car.

You can read these laws in California Vehicle Code Sections 21800, 21801, 21803.

Pedestrian Right of Way

Although pedestrians often have the right of way, pedestrians must also look out for their own safety and in some case, they must yield to traffic.

In crosswalks. Drivers must yield to pedestrians in marked and unmarked crosswalks. (Unmarked crosswalks exist where two roads intersect.) Drivers must slow down or stop in order to let pedestrians cross safely. Pedestrians do have a duty to watch out for their own safety, not to cross in a hazardous manner, and not to stop or delay traffic . However, drivers must exercise “due care” to make sure that they don’t interfere with pedestrians’ safe crossing. (California Vehicle Code 21950.)

Where there is a pedestrian tunnel or overcrossing. If you choose to cross on the street, instead of using the tunnel or overcrossing meant to be used by pedestrians at that crossing, you must yield to the traffic at the crossing. (California Vehicle Code 21935.)

J-Walking. Pedestrians who don’t use marked crosswalks or unmarked crosswalks at intersections must yield to traffic. However, the traffic must take due care not to hurt them. Between controlled intersections – intersections controlled by lights, stop signs, or traffic control officers – pedestrians may only cross in crosswalks. (California Vehicle Code 21954 and 21955.)

You can read more about Pedestrian Rights and Duties in California Vehicle Code Chapter 5.

Other of Right of Way Rules

Most of California’s right of way rules concern pedestrians and situations in vehicles meet at two intersecting roads. However it also lays out right of way rules for other less common situations.

Crossing or joining traffic from a non-road. When you’re trying to cross a road or join traffic road from a driveway, alley, or other non-road, you must yield to the oncoming traffic until it is safe to proceed. If you signal properly and enter or cross the road when it’s safe, then the other cars must yield to you. (California Vehicle Code Section 21804.)

Horse crossings. Where intersecting roads or paths are marked as an equestrian crossing, you must yield to horses that have entered the intersection safely. Horseback riders have the duty to enter the road safely, but then oncoming traffic must yield. (California Vehicle Code Section 21805.)

Moving Emergency Vehicles. When you hear or see an emergency sounding its siren or flashing its lights, you must yield right of way to the emergency vehicle and pull over on the right side of the road. Do not block any intersections. Remain stopped until the vehicle has passed. If you’re traveling in an “exclusive or preferential use lane” -- such as a car pool lane -- and an emergency vehicle approaches you from behind, you must exit the preferential use lane to let the vehicle pass. You may cross over double yellow lines to do this.

Emergency vehicles also have right of way over pedestrians. When an emergency vehicle approaches sounding its siren or flashing its lights, pedestrians must move to a curb or other safe play and stay there until the emergency vehicle passes. However, in all cases the drivers of emergency vehicles have a duty to drive safely and with regard to other persons and property on the road. (California Vehicle Code Section 21806 and 21807.)

Stationary Emergency Vehicles or Tow Trucks. Unless you receive other directions from a peace officer, when approaching a stationary emergency vehicle, tow truck, or Cal Trans vehicle that is on the road with flashing lights, switch lanes (if it is safe to do so) so that you’re no longer travelling in the lane immediately next to the stopped vehicle. If you can’t switch lanes because it’s not possible or safe, slow down when you pass the vehicle. (California Vehicle Code Section 21806.)

Learning More and Getting Legal Help

If you get a ticket for violating a California right of way law, you may be able to fight the ticket yourself or you may want to get help from a lawyer. To learn more about fighting tickets, see Fight Your Ticket & Win in California, by David W. Brown (Nolo). Or to find a lawyer in your area who specializes in fighting traffic tickets, check out Nolo’s Lawyer Directory.

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