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Right of Way

For several years after I started driving, I had a serious misconception about the idea of “right of way”. I thought, for some mysterious reason, that it was a right, that is, a right one can choose to exercise, as opposed to a convention one is required to follow. So, sometimes, I would choose not to exercise my right … on a highway I might yield to someone just entering, or at a four-way stop I might let someone else go first, if under the circumstances it seemed most efficient. It took a long time, and someone explaining it to me, before I understood that I was wrong, that my approach was not efficient, and often dangerous.

The highway example shows how it's dangerous. The other driver, knowing ve doesn't have the right of way, will usually yield by slowing down. If I slow down too, that keeps us on a collision course, causes additional slowing down on both sides, makes me an obstacle to the cars behind me, and, worst of all, makes it unclear how to resolve the situation.

So, anyway … it just goes to show how important it is to have good names for things. Perhaps instead of saying someone has the right of way we should say ve has precedence, which is just a fancy way of saying ve ought to go first.

The phrase “right of way” has other uses, in which it really does refer to a right rather than an obligation. Here's what my dictionary says about it.

  1. Law. a. The right to pass over property owned by another party. b. The path or thoroughfare on which such passage is made.
  2. The strip of land over which facilities such as highways, railroads, or power lines are built.
  3. The customary or legal right of a person, vessel, or vehicle to pass in front of another.

I wonder how the third meaning developed from the others.


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  Natural Order

@ December (2001)