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Rules of the Road, Part I

(The first installment of a three part series to review the rules of the road for drivers, pedestrians, and bicyclists.  We kick off the series today by examining a sampling of the rules for drivers.)

Residents of Washington State are rarely required to take the Department of Licensing’s Knowledge Test when renewing a drivers license to demonstrate comprehension of our traffic laws.  And the rules of the road are frequently misunderstood.  Today we’re taking a look at some of the rules of the road for drivers so we can all refresh our memories.  Understanding these rules will help make the streets function better for everyone. 

Speed Limit

In Seattle, the speed limit on non-arterial streets (a.k.a. residential, neighborhood or local streets) is 25 mph and generally 30 mph on arterials unless otherwise posted.  The speed limit drops to 20 mph in school zones when children are present.  The posted speed limit represents the maximum speed that should be attained only in ideal driving conditions.  Drivers should slow down when conditions dictate caution.  When roads are slick during rain, snow, or ice or when visibility is low, drivers should take it slow. 


Most people are unaware that every intersection contains a crosswalk whether marked or unmarked.  This is true throughout the state of Washington.  Drivers must stop for pedestrians when crossing the street at marked crosswalks and at intersections as well.  Whenever a vehicle is stopped at a marked crosswalk or at any unmarked crosswalk at an intersection to permit a pedestrian to cross the roadway, the driver of another vehicle approaching from the rear shall not overtake and pass the stopped vehicle.

When attempting to make a left turn at an intersection with pedestrians in the crosswalk, state law says that drivers can turn into the crosswalk only after pedestrians are one lane past the drivers half of the roadway.  The image below should help clarify this law.  Just remember that pedestrians and bicyclists have the right-of-way at crosswalks and intersections. 

Click for larger image

It’s also illegal to park with 20 feet of a marked or unmarked crosswalk and within 30 feet of a traffic signal, stop sign, or yield sign.  Parking too close to a crosswalk or traffic control device limits the visibility of the device and pedestrians – especially shorter children or people using wheelchairs.

Traffic Circles

SDOT has installed more than 1000 traffic circles over the past 30 years.  Traffic circles are effective at reducing speeds at intersections as well as the number and severity of collisions.  We are frequently asked how to properly make a left turn at an intersection containing a traffic circle.  The answer: A driver turning left at a neighborhood traffic circle must proceed counterclockwise around the traffic circle.  However, there are instances when drivers may need to turn left before a traffic circle, such as when cars park too closely to the right side of a circle or when a driver can’t maneuver a larger vehicle around to the right. Turning left in front of a traffic circle in those instances can be safely performed if the driver exercises reasonable care and yields to pedestrians, bicyclists, and oncoming traffic.

Intersection Right-of-Way

Who has the right-of-way at an intersection when two vehicles approach at the same time?  The law says that the driver on the left shall always yield to the driver on the right. This is true for intersections that have a traffic circle, an all-way stop, or are uncontrolled.

Cars and Bikes

As stated in the Washington Driver Guide, “The safety of bicycle riders on the road is a responsibility shared by both motorists and cyclists. All bicyclists have the same rights, duties, and responsibilities of a motor vehicle driver.  Motorists and riders who don’t obey traffic laws can be ticketed.”  So, in a nutshell, bicyclists and drivers must follow the same rules of the road.    

There may be a few rules of the road that are relatively new since your last Knowledge Test.  For example, drivers should not drive in a bike lane delineated with a solid white line unless making a turn or entering/exiting a driveway or private road.  Drivers must yield to cyclists whenever entering a bicycle lane to turn.  The same goes for sidewalks.  Bicyclists can ride on the sidewalk so drivers crossing a sidewalk must yield to bikes. Also, drivers should allow at least three feet of space when passing a bicyclist, and if you’re parked along the curb, look for bicyclists (and pedestrians and other vehicles) before you open the door.   

Two Way Left Turn Lanes

Most drivers already know that shared center lanes are reserved for vehicles making turns in either direction from or into the roadway.  But some drivers often have questions about the extent of their use.  These lanes cannot be used for passing – they are for turning vehicles only.  Perhaps the most unknown law about two way left turn lanes is that they cannot be used for travel further than 300 feet. 

Green Arrow, Yellow Arrow, Flashing Yellow Arrow, Red

At traffic signals, left turning drivers will often encounter what’s known as a “protected-permissive control”.  The “protected phase” means that when a motorist sees a solid green arrow, the entire green arrow time is dedicated to the left turn without conflict from opposing traffic.  After the green arrow terminates, it is followed by a yellow arrow to indicate the exclusive left turn movement (“protected”) has ended.   Motorists will then see a flashing yellow arrow so they can still make a left turn when safe to do so (“permissive”), as long as they yield to on-coming traffic, pedestrians in the crosswalk, and cyclists. This configuration often makes the intersection more efficient by reducing delay.

These are but a small sampling of the rules of the road.  There are a plethora of other rules and regs that help maintain order and operation on our roadways.  Interested in learning the difference between white and yellow or solid and dashed lane lines?  How about the difference between regulatory and warning signs?  There are several tools available for those who are curious.  Check out the Washington Driver Guide for starters.  For those that just love reading the Revised Code of Washington, the complete rules of the road in RCW format can be found here.  For even more detailed information about traffic signs and pavement markings, perhaps for the budding traffic engineer in your family, be sure to check out Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices.

Tune in to the SDOT Blog next Friday when we look at rules of the road for pedestrians.