Understanding Right of Way in a Car Accident

Author: Mesriani Law Group
Posted on: November 13, 2019

There is more to driving and riding cars than what meets the eye. With roads often deemed as accident-prone areas, road casualties and car accidents are quite inevitable all over the world. In the U.S. alone, 6 million people on average die in car accidents each year. In 2018, the greatest number of fatal car accidents occurred in the state of California, accounting for about 11% of the nation’s car-related injury deaths. Statistics also identified Los Angeles as the most car accident-prone state in California.

Whether you’re a driver or a passenger, there’s a big chance that you’ll experience a car accident at some point in your life, regardless of how cautious you are. More than being keen in observing safe driving practices, you should be able to exercise your right to determine who is at fault or liable in the event of a car accident.

How Does the Law define ‘Right of Way’?

In the context of traffic laws, “right of way” is all about yielding in common driving situations and is often determined by traffic signals, signs, or certain rules of the road. The right of way entitles a driver to proceed ahead of pedestrians or other vehicles. However, such a right is not absolute and should be exercised in a reasonable manner with regard to one’s welfare as well as the welfare of others involved.

The law does not actually grant the right of way–it simply states that it must be yielded. In the event that a driver fails to yield the right of way during a car accident, he or she may incur liability and a traffic citation, or worse, suffer from injury or fatality.

Right of Way Rules in California

Most car accidents and traffic-related injuries in California are caused by drivers who fail to yield the right of way. Hence, people should be well informed when drivers are permitted to go and when they should yield to other drivers to ensure their safety in traffic. With the right amount of courtesy, common sense and understanding of right of way laws, drivers and passengers can help ease traffic on the road and significantly lower the risks of car accidents. Here are the definitive right of way rules in California that could save your life when you happen to encounter a crossroads: 


Every driver should have the basic knowledge to yield the right of way to pedestrians, which includes people crossing the street, those in skateboards, roller skates, and wheelchairs, and even those who jaywalk or do not follow the traffic rules. In California, drivers are required to yield right of way and allow time for pedestrians to safely cross the street. 


When approaching crosswalks, drivers should allow five feet between their vehicle and the crosswalk so pedestrians can cross safely. Stopping on a crosswalk is prohibited in California for it can block the legal path of pedestrians to cross the street. To prevent unnecessary and dangerous situations, a driver should never pass a vehicle stopped at a crosswalk. Keep in mind that pedestrians always have the right of way regardless if the crosswalk is marked or unmarked.


Most of the fatal car accidents in California occur in intersections, which is why drivers should know the definitive right of way rules when it comes to intersections. Whether marked or unmarked, drivers should slow down and be ready to stop as they approach any intersection. The right of way is yielded to the vehicle that arrives first.

In the event that two drivers reach an intersection at the same time, the vehicle on the right has the right of way and should be allowed to go first. However, there are exceptions when it comes to three-way intersections, when one road ends at another and creates a “T” shape. Drivers traveling on the road with a stop sign should remain still and wait until all vehicles have passed through the intersection. If there is no sign is present, vehicles on the through road have the right of way, and drivers traveling on the road that ends should stop.

A special type of intersection is called a roundabout, where traffic moves in a circle in a counterclockwise direction. In California, drivers who enter roundabouts are required to yield to motorists and bicyclists who are already in the circle. When inside the roundabout, drivers should never stop to allow other motorists in the circle to avoid running the risk of causing an accident.

Traffic Signs and Signals

No driver would get a license without having sufficient knowledge about basic traffic signs and signals. If an intersection has working traffic signs indicating the right of way, these should be observed by any driver. Here are the common traffic signs and signals that indicate the right of way in California:

  1. Yield Sign – Drivers who encounter this sign should slow down and use caution when approaching an intersection. Drivers who travel on the intersecting road have the right of way, but when no vehicle approaches the intersection, drivers may proceed without stopping.
  2. Stop Sign – Drivers who encounter this sign should come to a complete stop and wait to proceed until it is safe to do so. Those who travel in a direction without a stop sign have the right of way. In the event that two or more vehicles approach a four-way-stop intersection at the same time, the driver on the right has the right of way after stopping.
  3. Flashing Red Light – Drivers should treat the flashing red light the same way as a stop sign and yield to traffic flowing in the intersecting road.
  4. Flashing Yellow Light – Drivers who encounter this light should proceed with caution through the intersection.
  5. Traffic signal not working – In cases when traffic signals malfunction, drivers should treat it as though the intersection has stop signs in all directions and proceed only when it is safe to do so. The same rule with the stop sign applies in the event that multiple vehicles reach the intersection at the same time.
Left-Hand Turns

When drivers intend to make a left-hand turn at an intersection in California, they should wait for the light to turn green. If a left-turn arrow light is present, drivers should remain still until the arrow turns green. Otherwise, they should yield the right of way to traffic flowing before turning. When making a U-turn, drivers should yield to right-turning vehicles in front of them.

Mountain Roads

Since California is known as a state of mountainous roads, drivers require extra caution when driving on mountain roads. If two drivers meet on a steep grade where neither vehicle is able to pass, the downhill-facing vehicle should yield the right of way to the uphill-facing vehicle. Also, the downhill-facing vehicle may have to back up to allow room for the other vehicle.

Hiring a Car Accident Attorney

Life can change in the blink of an eye when you or your loved one becomes a victim of a car accident. In the occurrence of such an unfortunate event, seeking legal help from an experienced car accident attorney can certainly make the process manageable. Some law firms in California offer free consultation with trusted lawyers who can evaluate your case and review your legal options with you. When it comes to car accidents, hiring the right lawyer will make all the difference in lifting the burden and getting your life back in order.

Indeed, we live in a world where accidents can happen anytime, especially when you least expect it. Each year, nearly 1.25 million people die in road crashes worldwide, and an additional 20-50 million are injured or disabled. Right of way laws might be complex, but understanding it is a responsible step that every citizen should take. 

Navigate California’s complex legal laws with the help of Mesriani Law Group. Get in touch with us today!