Follow the law, but arriving safely is even more important

Q: There is an intersection I use that is a two-way stop, where the cross-street does not stop. Often cars are stopped at both stop signs waiting for the arterial to clear. Normally at a stop sign, the car that arrives first goes first. However, at this intersection, one of the stopped cars is almost always turning left, and the turning car usually yields to the opposing car going straight, regardless of who stopped first. Can you confirm that a two-way stop is governed by the first-stopped, first-going rule?

A: We can find the easy answer in the Washington Driver Guide. It states, “Drivers turning left must yield to oncoming vehicles, pedestrians and bicyclists.” But wait, you say. What about the “first-stopped, first-going” rule? According to the driver guide, that only applies to four-way stops.

You won’t find what I quoted from the driver guide in the Revised Code of Washington. The instructions in the guide are a simplification of the law.

Here’s the law on left turns (abbreviated): “The driver of a vehicle intending to turn to the left within an intersection shall 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.” The driver guide is close on that one. If you were at an intersection without stop signs, of course you’d yield to an oncoming car before taking a left. But does a car at a stop sign on the other side of an intersection constitute an “immediate hazard?”

Let’s look at some similar language in the law about vehicles entering a stop or yield intersection. The law states that after stopping, the driver “shall yield the right-of-way to any vehicle in the intersection approaching on another roadway so closely as to constitute an immediate hazard.” That is the law that we’ve simplified into “first-stopped, first-going.” But the law doesn’t specify a four-way stop.

I suppose you could interpret the law to mean that if you pull into the intersection before the car across from you does, they now have to yield to you. But if the car across from you doesn’t share your interpretation and the two of you collide, the interpretation that really matters is the one that the investigating officer and the judge hold. I’ve talked with officers about that, and they agree that barring some extraneous circumstance, in a crash the person turning left is going to be the one at fault.

We often want our rules to be clear and absolute, like what we find in the Driver Guide. That’s a good place to start, but the laws I referenced are more than just driving instructions. They share an underlying theme: doing what it takes to avoid a crash. Yes, follow the instructions in the Driver Guide. That’s the easy part. But the hard part is even more important; as you drive, thoughtfully consider the ultimate goal – arriving safely.

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