Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Four-Way Stop

I always thought operating a car was fairly simple. You have a steering wheel, a gas pedal, a brake pedal, and if you’re really sporty or from a third-world country, a clutch. Go early and easy on the brakes, unless you are from a third-world country, or a city like Los Angeles, then you drive seventy-five miles per hour toward the stop sign and decide when you are twenty feet away whether you will stop or just blow through it.

Keep a safe following distance when at highway speeds, which is a three-second gap for most of us, barring again, third-world countries and cities like Los Angeles. In those places, safe following distances have been replaced by simply connecting all the cars at highway speeds, bumper-to-bumper, with only an imperceptible air gap between them.

If the weather is wet or icy, you should slow down and remember that brakes only work when the tires are in contact with the actual road. If you accidentally go too fast in inclement weather and end up sliding, remember to maintain positive acceleration and steer into the skid. In practical terms, this means to scream, “HOLY CRAP WE’RE GOING TO DIE!” at the top of your lungs while using both feet to attempt to push the brake pedal all the way to the front bumper, and allowing the highway guard rail and adjacent cars to act on behalf of your steering wheel.

Yield to oncoming traffic, stop on red, go on green. It all seems simple enough, but there is one traffic control situation that tends to cause a lot of people grief: Four-way stop signs.

The four-way stop need not be difficult, since the rules are quite simple. The entire concept of the four-way stop has to do with Right of Way. This literally means that when two cars arrive at adjacent stops signs at the same time, the car on the right has priority. The driver of the car on the left must hang his or her head in shame and meekly wave for the other driver to proceed. Driving statutes vary, but in most states, the driver with the Right of Way is required to give a friendly wave, and a visibly smug smile.

If the two vehicles have arrived simultaneously at opposing stop signs, the car going straight has priority, and the other car needs to wait for them to pass and turn around them. It is not always easy to know the other driver’s intended path, however, since the turn signals on most cars operated by drivers under the age of twenty-five have apparently been disabled, while many of the over-seventy crowd’s turn signals have been cleverly rigged to remain on constantly.

In either case you will need to be cautious as you approach the center of the intersection. It helps to notice where the other driver’s eyes are focused. If the driver is young, their gaze will invariably be directed downward, into their lap, where their phone is. These drivers often do not even realize they are in an intersection. The older drivers often have a dazed look, similar to a deer in headlights. They may realize they are in an intersection, but they are likely terrified to be there. In either case, the other driver may do something unexpected. Be prepared. Many times it is best to just remain at your stop sign, ignoring Right of Way, and wait these people out. The young drivers will proceed on their way after they get done typing “OMG LOL,” making the decision to turn or go straight in the half-second they are able to devote to driving the vehicle before they receive their next text message. The older drivers often fall asleep, and after their car has rolled harmlessly onto someone’s lawn or slowly through the front window of the corner store, you may proceed on your way.

In the unlikely event that four cars arrive at each of the four stop signs at exactly the same time and Right of Way cannot be traditionally established, Standard American Rules apply, and the largest vehicle wins. (Note: If any of the vehicles are electric or those silly little Smart Cars, they are obviously automatically disqualified from any consideration.)

In the even more unlikely event that four similar-sized cars have arrived simultaneously at the four stop signs, we default to Majority Rules, and the vehicle with the most passengers wins.

In the even, even more unlikely event that all the similar-sized cars contain the same amount of people (or people and livestock in some rural counties), all drivers must exit their vehicles and meet in the middle of the intersection. They will pair up into their respective east/west and north/south teams, and play a single-elimination, sudden-death Ro Sham Bo tournament (also known as Rock Paper Scissors, or Reaux Sham Beaux if the four-way stop is located in New Orleans).

If the final Ro Sham Bo round ends in three or more tie games, Right of Way is determined by total combined height and weight of each team.

Pretty simple, really.

However, as easy as the four-way stop rules should be to follow, many Americans just cannot seem to grasp them. As a result, some towns are following Europe’s lead and going with roundabouts instead.

This is a mistake. A huge mistake. I beg you, impressionable traffic engineers of America, don’t give in to the hype. Roundabouts will only make the problem worse. All the case studies speak for themselves. Any driver who is even slightly confused about the rules at a four-way stop will be utterly mystified by a roundabout.

Let’s not make the problem worse. Instead, let’s spend all that wasted re-engineering time and energy on re-educating the public on the four-way stop rules. That will be a better use of our money, because it seems that for some of the population, if four-way stops are long division, roundabouts are Chinese algebra.

See you soon,


Copyright © 2014 Marc Schmatjen

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