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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883


Who goes first?

Certain driving situations create quandaries, and resolution often entails driver confusion and/or self-appointed traffic direction.

B.M. described an example near Loon Lake that frustrates him, writing, “With State Road 292 approaching US 395 from the West and Garden Spot Road approaching US 395 from the East we continually have the situation at the intersection where vehicles from both directions are stopped at 395 and both wish to turn South towards Spokane.  When the traffic on 395 clears, who goes first?  The one who had arrived first?  The one turning right?”

He added, “Often one waves to the other to turn…These signals can become misinterpreted sometimes.  Today I had the same situation...They had arrived first, they waited, I waited, and then they waived to go ahead.  But it always doesn’t happen that way.  Sometimes the one from the East darts out and turns South regardless whether I’m still or moving.”

The situation B.M. described is regularly a point of consternation and is often perceived as a driving “gray area.”

Strictly speaking, when both opposing vehicles are stopped at the same time, regardless of who arrived first, the driver of the vehicle intending to turn left must legally yield right of way to vehicles across from them that are turning right or going straight. The left turning driver should wait not only until cross traffic clears, but until all the right-turners and straight-ahead traffic facing him or her have made their moves. Two opposing left turners can proceed simultaneously when cross traffic allows.

As B.M. points out, however, such order is often absent in these scenarios.

Sometimes, the driver who was there first believes they have the right to go next, even if all parties have been stopped for a period waiting for an opening in cross traffic.  But as I mentioned, once traffic is stopped at both sides of the highway, no one should be expected to “keep score” as to who made their stop first.

At other times, like B.M. notes, drivers use hand signals.  These, whether borne of courtesy or some other motivation (like a desire to direct others) can indeed be misconstrued, unseen or otherwise unheeded.  This “courtesy” often happens when there are lengthy lines of waiting vehicles on both sides of the highway, and drivers decide to “take turns.”  Unfortunately, regulated by unclear or unseen hand motions, activity at these locations can deteriorate into hesitation, proceeding without right of way, or stuttering stop-and-go roadway entrances.

The “first to arrive, first to go” tendencies at these locations may result from the rule at 4-way stops, where the first to stop should be the first one to depart.  Still, another gray area results when vehicles arrive at “4-ways” at the same time.  Even though the vehicle on the left should then yield right of way to the vehicle on the right, the situation becomes “gray” when all four vehicles arrive at the same time, since everyone is on someone else’s right in that case!

In those instances, and in the ones like B.M. wrote about, a mix of legal statute and orderly driver cooperation (waving others ahead or alternating who proceeds) typically ensues.

When a collision occurs between two opposing vehicles waiting at stop signs to cross or enter a highway, however, the driver of the left turning vehicle would be cited for not yielding to the driver of the vehicle heading straight or right.

Think of these road crossings with two opposing stop signs to be similar to an intersection with traffic light control.  With a traffic light, when the indication becomes green, left turners (unless they face a green arrow) must wait for the intersection to be clear of traffic across from them that is headed straight or right to clear before proceeding.  Similarly, when cross traffic clears for waiting vehicles facing one another at stop signs, left turners should wait for those going straight or right before embarking.

Nevertheless, when drivers take on traffic direction through use of hand signals, many drivers will heed the gestures, though in violation of road rules, to avoid delays, contentious standoffs, or even road rage.

Readers may contact Bill Love via e-mail at