When law is unclear, it’s best to ‘exercise due care’

Q: There’s a short stretch of road I travel frequently that is reduced to one lane because part of it fell into the ocean during a storm. There are stop signs on both ends of the one-lane road. Most of the time drivers alternate one car in each direction, but sometimes when several cars are lined up on one end, they’ll all go through at once. Shouldn’t we be alternating?

A: The law doesn’t say much about this, but that’s likely because we don’t typically build one-lane roads and expect traffic from both directions. This scenario seems limited to unexpected road failures, construction zones and one-lane bridges in rural areas.

Without law, my bias is toward safety, but this seems like a situation where neither cars alternating one at a time or several cars going through at once has a clear safety advantage. When stop signs show up in law they’re at intersections, but maybe we can take some principles as guidance for this situation.

The Washington Driver guide states, “At a four-way stop the driver reaching the intersection first, goes first.” Inferring from that, you might conclude that drivers should take turns at the stop signs. However, that explanation is a simplification of the law, which states, in part, that drivers “shall yield the right-of-way to any vehicle in the intersection or approaching on another roadway so closely as to constitute an immediate hazard.” Based on that, it appears that if several cars go through the one-lane road at once, the car on the other side should yield to all of them.

Practically speaking, when you arrive at the stop sign, you’re at the whim of how the drivers on the other side interpret the rules. If the second car, and third, fourth, and fifth, all think it’s OK to follow along, there’s not much you can do, short of a withering stare. Maybe we should alternate because it’s courteous to the driver on the other side, so they can get through quicker. But if you’re car No. 2, wouldn’t it be courteous to the cars behind you to set an example of following the lead car and getting your entire line through more quickly?

From an overall efficiency perspective, it makes more sense to have a string of cars drive through in one direction until there’s a gap, and then another string from the other direction. For example, you don’t see flaggers on a one-lane road alternating one car at a time.

Ultimately though, I can’t provide a solid backup from the law for either point of view. Whether you’re in Camp Courtesy or on Team Efficiency, have some grace for the other drivers who might not share your point of view and mean no harm to you. No matter where you come down on it, the overarching principle is to travel safely. Or as the law states, “Exercise due care and caution as circumstances shall require.”

Doug Dahl of the Traffic Safety Commission writes a weekly column for this newspaper.