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Your Guide to California’s Right of Way Laws

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Posted on January 10, 2024

California is well-known for its glittering beaches and glittering Hollywood celebrities, but it’s also notorious for its traffic congestion and challenging driving conditions—including its complex system of laws governing the right-of-way. The state’s right-of-way laws regulate traffic flow and help protect vulnerable pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorcyclists. Illegal turns, unsafe lane changes, and failure to yield the right of way significantly contribute to accident numbers on California roadways.

Right-of-way violations are more than just impolite, they are a danger to others. About 45% of car accidents occur in intersections. It helps prevent car accidents when drivers in California periodically review the state’s laws governing right of way.

What Does “Right-of-Way” Mean?

Yielding the right-of-way means allowing another vehicle to go first or proceed first through an intersection. Right-of-way rules also help drivers to understand when it’s safe to merge into moving traffic. All drivers in California must know the rules for right-of-way in all traffic situations, including controlled and uncontrolled intersections, multiple-lane intersections, on and off ramps, and in special circumstances, such as when encountering emergency vehicles.

Right-of-Way in Controlled Intersections

A controlled intersection is one in which a traffic light guides traffic flow. Drivers approaching a signal light must slow down at yellow lights, stop at red lights, and proceed through a green light. Drivers make a right turn on a red light if the way is clear unless there is a sign stating “No Right on Red,” or “No Turn on Red.” Some lights have signs specifying which low-traffic hours of the day the intersection allows right turns on red lights.

Some controlled intersections include arrow lights for left turns. Arrow lights may show green, yellow, or red just as other signal lights, or during low traffic situations, a blinking yellow light means drivers may turn whenever the lane is clear.

An intersection with a single flashing yellow light is the same as one with a stop sign. Drivers must stop at the intersection and proceed when the way is clear after yielding to traffic in both directions.

Drivers approaching a controlled intersection should remain alert. It’s always best to look both ways before entering an intersection even on a green light in case another driver is illegally entering the intersection.

Understanding Right-of-Way at Uncontrolled Intersections

While controlled intersections guide drivers with traffic signals, maintaining order at uncontrolled intersections relies upon all drivers understanding and following the laws for right-of-way. These laws depend on the type of intersection, including the following:

  • At four-way stops, the first person to arrive at the intersection proceeds first. If more than one driver stops at the intersection at the same moment, the driver on the right goes first; however, if two vehicles arrive at the same time and are across from each other in the intersection, the driver going straight goes first.
  • At T intersections (a road dead ends at a street with left and right traffic) the driver on the dead-end street must yield to all traffic going left and right before making a left or right turn.
  •  At multiple-lane intersections, drivers on the road with two lanes must yield the right of way to drivers on the multi-lane roadway.
  • All pedestrians have the right of way in crosswalks.
  • Oncoming traffic has the right-of-way when making a left turn or a U-turn on a two-way road.

Other Important Right-of-Way Laws in California

As a California driver, it’s important to understand when you do or don’t have the right-of-way in other situations when no signs or signals are present to give directions. Some examples include the following:

  • Always yield to oncoming traffic when exiting a driveway or parking lot
  • When making a left turn, yield to traffic in all directions and check for pedestrians approaching from the left or right before pulling forward
  • Always yield the right of way to moving traffic when pulling back into a lane after parking on the shoulder of the road
  • Yield to all vision-impaired people with red-tipped white canes, plain white canes, or guide dogs
  • Always yield the right of way to emergency vehicles with lights and sirens engaged by pulling aside or changing lanes to allow them to pass
  • If in an intersection when emergency vehicles approach, proceed through the intersection before pulling aside to let the emergency vehicles pass
  • On narrow mountain roads with little or no space for two-way traffic, the vehicle going downhill has the right of way and the vehicle traveling uphill must pull as far to the right as possible to allow room to pass
  • Drivers approaching an intersection with a signal light that is broken must stop and use the rules of an uncontrolled 4-way stop

Right-of-Way Laws for Roundabouts

Roundabout intersections are increasingly popular on new or redesigned roadways in California and elsewhere, but roundabouts are confusing for those unfamiliar with the following right-of-way rules for roundabouts:

  • Decrease speed when approaching a roundabout
  • When entering a roundabout, drivers must yield to traffic already present in the roundabout
  • Always drive counter-clockwise in roundabouts
  • When exiting a roundabout, yield to all traffic on the roadway you’re entering
  • Use turn signals when exiting a roundabout or when changing lanes
  • Never stop in a roundabout or pass other drivers
  • In multiple-lane roundabouts, always choose the lane appropriate for your turn. For example, the right lane if you are making a right turn out of the roundabout or the left lane for a left turn

New drivers must pass an exam with questions about the state’s right-of-way laws before they receive a valid California driver’s license.

Penalties for Failure to Yield the Right-of-Way in California

Failing to yield the right of way when appropriate under California law is a traffic violation. If a driver receives a citation for this traffic offense, they may face a fine of up to $238.00 and one point against their California driver’s license. These points are also reported to the driver’s insurance company and may increase insurance rates. The DMV may suspend the license of anyone who accumulates a certain number of points within specified one-, two-, or three-year periods.