The purpose of right-of-way laws is to provide order and prevent accidents in situations where traffic is merging or crossing paths or pedestrians are crossing roadways. You can get a right-of-way ticket even if you weren't involved in an accident. But oftentimes, police issue right-of-way tickets after concluding that a driver's failure to yield the right-of-way was the cause of a collision.
Here is a rundown on the most common traffic right-of-way laws and ways to fight right-of-way tickets.
All states have right-of-way laws that apply to vehicles crossing through intersections. The specifics of these laws differ depending on whether the type of intersection and control devices (signs and lights) that direct traffic at the intersection.
However, the general rule—provided there's no sign (such as a yield sign) or traffic control device directing otherwise—is that the vehicle arriving at an intersection first has the right-of-way.
For intersections that are "uncontrolled" (meaning, there are no signs or traffic lights), the laws of most states read something like this:
When two vehicles entered an uncontrolled 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 other words, when two vehicles are approaching an uncontrolled intersection from different roadways at about the same time, the vehicle on the right goes first, and the vehicle on the left stops and waits.
The right-of-way rules for four-way stop intersections (stop signs or blinking red lights) are similar to those that apply to uncontrolled intersections. All drivers approaching a four-way stop must first make a complete stop and then yield the right-of-way to any vehicles that have already entered the intersection. And, when two vehicles arrive at the four-way stop at approximately the same time, the vehicle on the left must yield to the vehicle on the right.
The right-of-way rules for three-way (T-shaped) uncontrolled intersections are a little different from those that apply to four-way intersections. These right-of-way laws typically say something like:
At an uncontrolled approach to a T-shaped intersection, the driver required to turn shall yield the right of way.
In other words, the driver on the road that dead-ends must always yield to the other driver (the one crossing the T), no matter who got to the intersection first.
Lots of traffic accidents result from a vehicle being hit by oncoming traffic while attempting to turn left. The left-turn right-of-way laws of most states read something like this:
The driver of a vehicle intending to turn left on a highway, or to turn left into public or private property, or an alley, shall yield the right of way to all vehicles approaching from the opposite direction that are close enough to constitute a hazard at any time during the turning movement and shall continue to yield the right of way to the approaching vehicles until the left turn can be made with reasonable safety.
So, where oncoming traffic doesn't have a stop sign or red signal, it's basically always the driver turning left who must yield to other traffic.
State driving laws also cover the right-of-way rules drivers must follow when approaching pedestrians crossing a roadway. The laws of many states say something like this:
The driver of a vehicle shall yield the right-of-way to a pedestrian crossing the roadway within any marked crosswalk or within any unmarked crosswalk at an intersection. The driver of a vehicle approaching a pedestrian within any marked or unmarked crosswalk shall exercise all due care and shall reduce the speed of the vehicle or take any other action relating to the operation of the vehicle as necessary to safeguard the safety of the pedestrian.
State laws also typically require drivers to yield the right-of-way to pedestrians walking down the sidewalks.
In other words, drivers must generally yield the right-of-way to any pedestrian crossing at an intersection (whether there is a crosswalk or not) and before cross a sidewalk (for instance, while entering or leaving a parking lot). Additionally, drivers must use caution, which might include reducing their speed, when approaching pedestrians crossing a roadway.
The best defenses to a right-of-way ticket will depend on the wording of law you were cited for violating and the specific circumstances of your case. So, a good place to start is to look up the law. The code section (such as "Vehicle Code section 21952") should be written on your ticket. With a quick internet search, you should be able to come up with the text of the law.
Once you have the wording of the law, try to determine whether you have an argument that your conduct didn't violate the law. For example, suppose you were involved in an accident at a four-way stop, and an officer tickets you for not yielding the right-of-way to a car on your right. You might have a viable defense if you actually arrived at the intersection well in advance of the vehicle to your right. When making this type of argument, it, of course, helps if you have a witness who can back your testimony.
Also, some states have laws that say a driver can forfeit the right-of-way by exceeding the speed limit. So, in some circumstances, you might be able to beat a right-of-ticket by showing that the other driver was speeding.