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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Semantics, semantics, semantics

When evaluating real estate, it’s regularly recommended, redundantly, to consider location, location, location.  Concerning the dissection of the legalese within traffic laws, a similar, applicable mantra might be, semantics, semantics, semantics.

In an earlier column, I wrote that “passing, by any other name, is still passing.”  Similarly, a road, by any other name, is still a road.

The semantics, or exact versus implied meanings of traffic terms came up in an email from reader S.A., who first posed a question about intersection right of way, which led to some analysis of roadway terms.

He wrote, “Looking at the RCW regarding traffic laws can sometimes be exasperating in trying to interpret the legalese.  Here is the current topic around my house.  In general, I understand the right of way procedures at unmarked non arterial intersections.  When entering an unmarked ‘T’ intersection who has the right of way?  I contend that the rule of the vehicle on the right has the right of way still applies.  So the vehicle on the stem of the ‘T’ intersection has the right of way over the vehicle approaching from the left.  Also, what is the definition of an arterial?  I am guessing that each municipality has a list of arterials in its domain so they are so defined.”

I recall that S.A.’s question came up a few years ago, and I also recall finding no exceptions in the RCWs to the “right of way for the vehicle on the right” law concerning “T” intersections.  Actually, within the law, no one actually “has” the right of way, but rather it is specified when another driver must yield it.  Hence, the intersection law states that the driver of the vehicle on the left must yield right of way to the vehicle on the right at uncontrolled intersections.

Specifically, RCW 41.61.615 states:  When two vehicles approach or enter an intersection from different highways at approximately the same time, the driver of the vehicle on the left shall yield the right of way to the vehicle on the right.

In reality, at “T” intersections, especially where the “stem” of the “T” seems like a “lesser” road, the driver on the “stem” often yields.  This may also regularly occur since that driver is about to make a turn and the other driver is usually proceeding straight. Making those turns, though, does not relinquish the right of way, and still, if “push comes to shove,” the driver to the left should be prepared to yield to the vehicle on the right in those situations.

Per RCW 47.26.090:  The term “arterial” as used in this chapter means any state highway, county road, or city street, in an urban area, that is functionally classified as a principal arterial, minor arterial, or collector street by the department in cooperation with the board, regional transportation planning organizations, cities, and counties. The board shall develop criteria and procedures for designating arterials in the incorporated cities and towns lying outside urban areas.

Notice that RCW 41.61.615 uses “highway” in its text as a “catch-all” for the term roadway, which one can see is synonymous with “arterial,” “road,” or “street” in RCW 47.26.090.

Washington further defines “highway” in RCW 36.75.010 as:  every way, lane, road, street, boulevard, and every way or place in the state of Washington open as a matter of right to public vehicular travel both inside and outside the limits of incorporated cities and towns; “roadway” as:  the paved, improved, or proper driving portion of a highway designed or ordinarily used for vehicular travel; “county road” as:  every highway or part thereof, outside the limits of incorporated cities and towns and which has not been designated as a state highway; and “city street” as:  every highway or part thereof, located within the limits of incorporated cities and towns, except alleys.

Within the Spokane Municipal Code, “arterials” are further designated as:  “principal arterials,” “minor arterials,” “collector arterials,” and “parkways.”

I think it’s evident by exploring the state and city definitions of the surfaces that we drive upon that my earlier statement is generally true:  “A road, by any other name, is still a road!”

Readers may contact Bill Love via email at