See.Safe.Smart: No Sign or Light? Yield to the Right!

True or False: By law in New Ulm, at an uncontrolled intersection (no stop sign or traffic light), drivers traveling on the north-south streets have the right of way.

Answer: FALSE! Through the generations in New Ulm, the idea that drivers on north-south streets have the right-of-way is a myth that seems to have perpetuated itself. When traveling on an east-west street, it’s an all-too-common experience for most people in New Ulm to encounter a driver on a north-south street who makes no effort to slow down — much less even consider yielding the right of way. Long-time New Ulm residents often insist that a vehicle traveling on the north-south street always has the right of way.

However, according to Minnesota State Law, this behavior is incorrect. On ALL streets involving uncontrolled intersections, the car to the RIGHT always has the right of way. Minnesota Statute 169.20 RIGHT-OF-WAY, Subdivision 1, Approaching intersection, states: (a) When two vehicles enter 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. According to Officer Eric Gramentz with the New Ulm Police Department, “we respond too often to crashes in our community at intersections where this basic law is not followed for one reason or another. Each community and its members cannot make up their own set of rules – an example of this would be saying that “because it’s a north/south street the law doesn’t apply”. The full right of way statute is available at https://www.revisor.mn.gov/statutes/?id=169.20.

While the King and Queens Street myth may be alive and well in New Ulm, the fact is that Minnesota State Law is the ultimate law on this issue. That’s why the time has come for us all to give this dangerous myth a proper funeral, once and for all. It’s why the Heart of New Ulm Project’s (HONU) Safe Routes to School Action Team chose this month’s SEE.SAFE. SMART. campaign message, which is “No sign or light? Yield to the Right!”

Why is the north-south right-of-way myth so dangerous?

Putting aside for a minute the fact that failing to yield to the right at an uncontrolled intersection is illegal, think of all the confusion this myth causes for New Ulm’s young drivers just learning to drive and get their license, as well as for visitors to our town.

Young drivers are taught Minnesota traffic laws so that they can competently drive in any city within Minnesota — and do it safely and defensively. What would happen if those same drivers went down the road in a different community and tried to follow New Ulm’s north-south right-of-way myth? They would be at high risk for causing an accident — potentially serious — and be ticketed for failure to yield, or worse.

Visitors to New Ulm bring in beneficial tourism revenue during our many festivals and community attractions, but when they arrive in town, they logically assume that New Ulm drivers follow established Minnesota state traffic laws. It’s not like the north-south myth is posted on all the welcome signs into town! Imagine a visitor’s surprise when they are nearly hit or have to slam on the brakes because they didn’t know the New Ulm myth. We want visitors’ time here to be pleasant and memorable so they come back often, instead of leaving frustrated and telling all their friends about their bad experience in New Ulm.

We are very fortunate that no one in our community has been seriously injured as a result of not yielding the right of way, but it’s likely just a matter of time before someone is. For the benefit of everyone driving on New Ulm streets, we need to all wash the old New Ulm myth out of memory and replace it with the correct information we all learned in driver’s education: No sign or light, yield to the right. It will make the streets safer for everyone and a more pleasant place for visitors, new residents and new drivers.

What else can we all do to improve safety?

Officer Gramentz stresses that “all drivers need to be aware of their surroundings and free from distractions while driving. This includes, but is not limited to cell phones, conversations with passengers, radio/ music, eating, etc. Drivers approaching an uncontrolled intersection should always slow down to make sure that it’s safe to travel into and through the intersection. If two vehicles approach an uncontrolled intersection at the same time regardless of the community they are in – it is required that the driver yield to the vehicle to the right.”

Residents have contacted the City of New Ulm requesting that more “stop” or “yield” signs be installed at particularly problematic uncontrolled intersections to help improve safety. Unfortunately, according to the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), these intersections don’t warrant installation of signage. The MUTCD sets the minimum standards and provides guidance to city engineers to ensure uniformity of traffic control devices across the city so they coincide with the nation.

New Ulm has wide streets, which are both an asset and a curse. Combined with only a limited numbers of controlled intersections, wide streets tend to promote speed. Speed is one of the top barriers New Ulm parents have identified as to why they don’t let their kids walk or bike to school or activities. Our police department cannot be at every intersection every day to monitor poor driving behavior. We as responsible residents of our community must take responsibility for our actions. It’s time to SEE people biking and walking, act SAFE, and be SMART. It’s also time to SLOW DOWN and follow all STATE laws!

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