If law is unclear yield to each other to avoid a crash

Q: When two cars are at stop signs that face each other and have a road going between them that doesn’t stop, does a car going straight have the right-of-way, even if it comes to the sign after the left-turning car?

A: The law doesn’t give people the right-of-way; it tells you who is required to yield the right-of-way. It might sound like the same thing, but it matters. Assuming you have the right-of-way can get you into trouble, even if the other person should have yielded.

Intersections are tricky. Nearly a quarter of traffic fatalities in Washington are at intersections. When you figure that intersections are geographically only a tiny portion of the driving infrastructure, that’s a big portion of crashes.

So, if you’re approaching an intersection, part of your internal conversation should be, “What should I do to avoid a crash?” Instead, the impulse is to think, “What can I do to get through this intersection first?”

If you do ask yourself that first question, one obvious answer is, “follow traffic rules.” But what if we don’t agree on the rules?

When you studied for your driver test you probably used the driver guide. You probably didn’t read the Revised Code of Washington. Even though the RCW is the final word on traffic rules it’s not exactly an easy read. The Washington Driver Guide is much easier to understand, but sometimes in its effort to make the law readable, it oversimplifies it.

As an example, the driver guide states, “Drivers turning left must yield to oncoming vehicles, pedestrians and bicyclists.” But that’s only half of the rule. The law requires drivers turning left in an intersection to “yield the right-of-way to any vehicle approaching from the opposite direction which is within the intersection or so close thereto as to constitute an immediate hazard.”

Yes, drivers turning left must yield to drivers going straight, but only if that other driver is in the intersection or presents a hazard. The law also requires drivers at a stop sign to yield to other cars in the intersection, so if the left-turning driver enters the intersection while the opposing driver is still stopped, the driver going straight would need to yield.

But if both drivers think they have the right-of-way, you’ll soon have two cars in the intersection on conflicting paths. I’m hesitant to make an absolute statement about who’s at fault in a traffic conflict when there are so many possible scenarios, but if the opposing drivers do end up in a collision, the burden to yield tends to be on the turning driver. You could say that if a left-turning driver collides with a driver going straight, the collision is evidence that they didn’t yield to another vehicle in the intersection.

This is a situation where the left-turning driver knowing the law is only partly helpful. You can’t be sure that the driver across from you also knows that once you’re in the intersection they need to yield to you. You’ll have to combine your understanding of the law with good judgment to make the choice that avoids a crash.

Doug Dahl writes a weekly column for this newspaper. He is with the state Traffic Safety Commission.