Right of Way Law & Legal Definition


Right of way is a term subject to different meanings. In the context of property law, it is the right to travel over someone's land and to have the reasonable use and enjoyment of their property as long as it is not inconsistent with the owner's use and enjoyment of the land. The right of way may be a specific grant of land or an "easement," which is a right to pass across another's land. Some rights of way are for a specific use such as repair of telephone lines.

In traffic laws, a driver is entitled to the "right of way" to priority to proceed ahead of other vehicles or pedestrians, depending on certain rules of the road, such as the first to reach an intersection. Failure to yield the right of way to the vehicle or person entitled to is dangerous and may result in a citation and fine, or liability in the event of an accident. However, right of way is not an absolute right. It must be exercised in a reasonable manner with due care for one's self and for the care of others involved.

Generally, a driver approaching an intersection must yield the right-of-way to traffic already in the intersection (traffic in the intersection has the right of way). If drivers are approaching an intersection from opposite directions, the driver turning left must yield to approaching traffic going straight or turning right (traffic going straight or turning right has the right-of-way). Two drivers at an intersection that arrived at the same time at a right angle- the driver on the left must yield the right-of way. ( the driver on the right has the right of way).

The following is an example of state's traffic right of way rules for vehicles:

A driver must yield the right of way:

  • when police or emergency vehicles are using sirens or flashing lights. The driver must pull to the right-hand edge of the roadway and stop, if necessary. Intersections must not be blocked.
  • when making a right turn on a red light after a stop.
  • after coming to a complete stop at an intersection where there is a stop sign or flashing red signal. If there is no stop line, stop before the crosswalk. If there is no crosswalk or stop line, stop at a place where all approaching traffic can be seen. Proceed only after stopping and yielding to all pedestrians and other vehicles in the intersection.
  • when making a left turn on a red light after a stop from a one-way street to another one-way street with traffic moving to the left.
  • when more than one driver reaches a four-way stop intersection. The first driver to stop should be the first to go. When two vehicles on different roadways arrive at a four-way stop intersection at the same time, the vehicle on the left should yield to the vehicle on the right.
  • when two vehicles on different roadways reach an uncontrolled intersection at the same time. The vehicle on the left should yield to the vehicle on the right.
  • to oncoming traffic when making a left-hand turn. If you enter an intersection while the light is green, you may finish your turn even though the light turns red.
  • to through traffic when approaching a MERGE sign. You must increase or decrease speed to avoid an accident.
  • when approaching a YIELD sign. You should slow down or stop to avoid an accident.
  • even after the light turns green when there are vehicles in the intersection.
  • when emerging from an alley, building, private road or driveway after coming to a complete stop.
  • to cross traffic when on the terminating highway of a "T" intersection with no traffic control signs or signals.
  • to any authorized vehicle engaged in construction or maintenance of a highway that is displaying amber (yellow) oscillating, rotating or flashing lights. Yielding the right-of-way can help prevent accidents and save lives.
  • when a funeral procession enters an intersection with its lights on. The lead vehicle of the procession must obey stop signs and traffic signals. But when the lead vehicle has crossed an intersection, the following vehicles in the procession may cross cautiously without stopping. A driver who is not in the procession may overtake and pass the procession if he or she can without causing an accident or interfering with the procession. Drivers who are not part of a funeral procession-except for emergency vehicles - are not allowed to break into the line unless they are authorized to do so by a traffic officer.

There are other right of way traffic rules regarding pedestrians and other users of the road, such as bicycles.