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What Does it Mean to Have the Right of Way While Driving?

Updated: Oct 19, 2023

October 16th - 22nd is National Teen Driver Safety Week. When it comes to helping your teens be safe drivers, one of the critical things you need to do is help them move from understanding the theories of driving to being able to apply the theories safely on the road. There are two essential components to learning new skills: theory and application. Good teachers and coaches understand that students need to learn both in order to truly acquire a useful skill.

Theory is the informational side of learning, or what we might call book learning. In driving, this is learning the laws, how cars work, the mechanics of driving, and what to do in various situations. This part of learning involves a lot of “why” information, which really helps students go from memorization to actual understanding.

Application is the experiential side of learning, or learning by doing. In driving, this takes place in the car out on the road. We take all of that head knowledge and apply it to real life so that students can make the full connection between knowing what to do and actually doing it.

When the connection between theory and application is missing, students have trouble “thinking on their feet” and making knowledge-based decisions in real world scenarios. With teen drivers, this can lead to serious and dangerous mistakes. That’s why kids don’t get their license on their first day of driving! They need time to develop their skills through learning, doing, and making the connection between the two. Remember, teens still have developing frontal lobes, so this connection may not happen as quickly for them as for an adult.

One area where I see this lack of connection the most is in understanding who has the right of way in traffic. According to the Pennsylvania DMV, the right of way is to be given rather than taken. All drivers are responsible for ensuring safety on the road.

When Do I Have the Right of Way in Traffic?

In very general terms, drivers have the right of way when they are traveling straight and have the green light (or no traffic signs) at an intersection. All other drivers yield the right of way to those drivers in order to maintain an orderly flow of traffic.

Red yield sign on road

At intersections with traffic signage, right of way is determined by the signs. At an all-ways stop sign, whoever arrives first has the right of way. If there is a traffic light, once again, cars traveling straight have the right of way when their light is green. A left turn arrow may give the right of way to cars turning left to keep traffic moving efficiently. At a traffic light intersection with a left turn lane, use the following guide to understand who has the right of way:

  • No left turn arrows on the traffic light post

    • Left turn is only allowed during a green light when there are no oncoming cars

    • Left turn is never allowed during a red light, even if there are no oncoming cars

  • Left turn arrow on the same unit as the solid green traffic signal

    • Left turn has the right of way during the green arrow only

    • Left turn is only allowed to turn during the solid green light when there are no oncoming cars

    • Left turn is never allowed during a red light, even if there are no oncoming cars

  • Left turn arrow on a separate unit with green, yellow, and red arrows

    • Left turn has the right of way during the green arrow

    • Left turn is never allowed when the left turn arrow is red, EVEN IF there are no oncoming cars and the straight lanes have a solid green light

    • Left turn is permitted if the yellow left turn arrow is blinking, there are no oncoming cars, and the straight lanes have a solid green light

When you look at the rules in detail, it’s no wonder left turns at traffic lights are confusing to teen drivers! And let’s be honest, there are a lot of adult drivers on the road who could use a refresher in understanding how the right of way works with left turns.

Right of Way: From Theory to Application

The concept of right of way, especially with left turns, deserves concentrated training time during teen driving lessons. My advice to parents is to make a list of these different types of intersections around your town, talk about the left turn rules with your teen, and then go out and practice them. Once your teen applies what you are teaching, they will make the connection and be able to safely navigate left turns. Of course, this won’t come right away, but practice makes progress.

Think about your own left turn habits. Are you setting a safe example for your teen driver? Coaching your teen driver is a great opportunity to shine a light on your own habits and make a conscious effort to apply your own safe driving skills at all times on the road. For more help guiding your teen through left turns and other tricky driving situations, check out our course for parents: The Parent’s Survival Guide for New Teen Drivers. Lessons from a professional Safe Driving Coach are another great way to help your teen learn the vital lifelong skills necessary for safe driving.


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