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Stop 4-Way Illiteracy

October 11, 2009

stopWhy doesn’t anyone seem to have a clue about what to do at a four-way stop? As I prepared to rant to my Facebook friends for the third time on this same subject, I realized I’ve got a problem. It’s of serious concern, and not just to myself. (Full disclosure: there is a very large and busy four-way stop in my neighborhood; so this an issue for me at least twice a day. Maybe it’s not so much for you.)

Still, I’ve conducted a very unscientific poll, and my anecdotal evidence suggests that fully 80% of adults are uncertain about the law. It seems as though we learn the rule just long enough, at the age of 16, to pass the license test. Hey, I get that throughout life we learn a lot of things just for the test, and that those things don’t often stick with us. But while you may be able to muddle through life without a full knowledge of the key events and causes of the War of 1812, I would argue that the rules of the road are something most of us use (or should use) every day. The bedrock foundation of our societal contract with our neighbors is, at the very least, to do no harm and keep each other safe. Kind of the whole reason for laws…

At any rate, what are we to do at a four-way stop? People much more used to stoplights have, understandably I guess, come to believe in the theory of alternating the directions of traffic . In other words, the cars heading east-west go, then north-south, etc. (Kind of like a lighted intersection.) Others believe it’s a matter of who got there first. This is true, at least in most states, but is unhelpful when two or more cars approach at the same time.  We end up with a giant mess. There are those that assume it’s always their turn & aggressively push through the intersection. Rude and dangerous! Then there are the timid ones who will sit there until someone waves them through. Irritating!

For the record, if two cars are involved, and one clearly arrived first, then that car has the right of way. If, however, they arrive at the same time, you are to yield to the car to the right, and traffic proceeds, one at a time, in a clock-wise direction. At busy intersections, it is simply not practical to try to figure out who got there first – just go with the clock-wise rule! Also, I should mention, that unlike a lighted intersection, left turns do not yield to on-coming traffic. When it is their turn, it’s their turn, regardless of whether the guy opposite wants to go straight. It’s simple, really! So why the confusion?

For one, it’s as I said above, we forget. Then, we decide what we think is fair and stick with that – to the point that we become convinced it is in fact correct. Or so it seems. When I ask people,the vast  majority claim to believe they are absolutely right. I’m not so sure. Anecdotal evidence: just let a police car arrive at a busy four-way stop. All of a sudden, everyone’s yielding to everyone else and no one ends up going anywhere fast. Hilarious, and yet sad.

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23 Comments leave one →
  1. October 16, 2009 8:48 am

    Hey, I found your blog while searching on Google. I have a blog on online stock trading, I’ll bookmark your site.

  2. Albert Tilsey permalink
    October 13, 2009 12:28 am

    I always leave room for people to make mistakes. In essence, a policy where I don’t make the first move in a 3 way stop or a 4 way stop. That way I can anticipate any of the 3 possible undesired outcomes. The 4th one being me making the undesired mistake. The only time I have a problem with this is when someone else holds the same policy, in which case I look at all the drivers faces and judge their reactions before I proceed into the intersection. It’s unavoidable to have this be misconstrued as weakness, but I am one to err on the side of caution. 🙂

  3. October 12, 2009 7:31 pm

    well its supposed to be everyone goe’s in the order that they stopped. but thats never how it works, somehow no one can understand the rules with that..

  4. October 12, 2009 6:48 pm

    Seems clear to me. The sign says “STOP”. I stop. I stay there until the sign says “GO”.

    On a related note, here in California we have yellow lights before the red.

    The meaning of those is, yellow means “go real fast” and red means “only one more car through the intersection”.

    Also, there are people who seem to think that the correct answer to the driver’s exam question “who has the right of way”, is “I do”.

    • October 12, 2009 8:10 pm

      Ahhh, the yellow light. It all depends on the size of the intersection, whether or not the traffic light is photo-enforced, and how long the yellow stays yellow.

      It’s quite inconsistent in the ATL. I’ve noticed more numeric countdown displays by the Walk/Don’t Walk signal, but in some intersections when it goes to 5-4-3-2-talk-to-the-hand, the light turns yellow for two seconds and then goes red. In other intersections, the countdown goes to 2-1-00-red.

      I usually check to see if anyone is behind me. If there aren’t any cars, the light is yellow, and there’s a camera…I just stop on yellow. I know, it’s a little weird.

  5. October 12, 2009 6:46 pm

    What do we do if the sign says ‘3-way’ and there are four roads leading into the intersection?

    And how about ‘4-way’ in an intersection with a big thoroughfare and four smaller streets crossing it.

    Don’t forget that before the juggling of who waits for whom, we have to be determine if any of us should not stop at all.

    Better be careful!

  6. paula stewart permalink
    October 12, 2009 4:52 pm

    Living in Las Vegas it is running joke with everyone that drives, at least this is what I think. It really isn’t that hard to figure out. They seem to placed where in the future they may or may not place a stop light. I think the critera used is how many people are killed. Just amazes me!! I am beginning to think before a license is renewed that people must do a road test through parts of town where there are 4 way stops!!

  7. Bob Reinhard permalink
    October 12, 2009 3:35 pm

    The real disaster comes when they reach a “three way” stop, or as it’s so well worded on signs here: The All-Ways Stop. It’s mainly just the two people staring at each other while screaming in their head: “GO YOU BASTARD GO!”

    ~Bob, Counter Culture Clown

  8. martin permalink
    October 12, 2009 2:46 pm

    For those of you planning a trip, You better learn to yield to the other car on the right before you start driving in Europe. Over here stops sign are rare. At most intersections there are no stop sign at all (where in the US there would be 4). Figure it out.
    The rule says in the EU, that unless you are specifically given priority, the car on the right has always priority. This holds true especially in mind-buggling intersections such as the Arc de Triomphe in Paris where 11 streets intersect. You are specifically given priority if the light is green or if you see the priority road sign (you don’t have that one in the US).
    So remember always look on your right…and yield. Don’t search the stop signs, there are none.

  9. Kevin permalink
    October 12, 2009 2:12 pm

    I read about a strange Texas law once—I’m not sure if it’s apocryphal, but if not, it’s definitely one of those old ones no one ever bothered to repeal:

    If two trains going in opposite directions on the same track meet each other, one can’t move until the other does.

    • October 12, 2009 6:16 pm

      Sorry for the delay in making your post viewable. It got caught by the spam blocker for some reason.

  10. October 12, 2009 12:47 pm

    We have this problem with a 3-way stop in my ‘hood-not even 4, just 3, and it still seems to be a puzzle for many.

  11. October 12, 2009 10:48 am

    I hate it when I arrive at an intersection and the person who *clearly* has the right of way looks at me with a confused and fearful look, like they’re afraid I might be zipping wildly into the intersection at any moment like a crazed madman. If they simply knew basic traffic law then they’d know the odds were good that a random stranger probably would’t be jumping out of turn.

    So there we sit awkwardly for a few seconds which, to me, feels like an eternity. Finally they give me a sheepish look and a friendly wave saying, “I’m too dumb to know if it is my turn or not so why don’t you go instead?”

    Once I have that visual confirmation I safely go without hesitation – but no earlier than that because I’m not about to proceed against someone with the right of way until I know their intentions. I give them a nice solid glare as I go by, which I always imagine as I laugh silently to myself confuses them even more. “I just let that guy go first,” they must be thinking. “Why would he glare at me?”

    They walk among us!

  12. Kal permalink
    October 12, 2009 9:21 am

    every time I come to a 4 way stop that is full, I groan because I know at least 2 drivers will cause a headache when trying to decide when to go.

  13. unclejohnny permalink
    October 12, 2009 1:28 am

    Thank you for this post. I concur with all your statements.

    I live in Europe but had the opportunity to drive on the eastern and western coast too. And I have to tell that it was a pleasure. The great majority of people are very courteous and show respect towards pedestrians and cyclists. Unlike at home, but that’s another story.

    When I first encountered an intersection with more than 2 stop signs, actually 3, that was surprising. When I saw one with 4 sings, that was riddiculous. Not to mention the 5-way case. I was thinking a lot why this is useful, since these are places where same level roads meet. It is obvious, at least for me, that you must yield to the right. In this case it seems to be a little overregulated and may suggest people that the “yield to the right” rule is not effective everywhere.

    E.g. in the Palo Alto, CA area these kind of crossings are so common that people don’t even stop at the signs, they just slow down. After a few days I had to do the same as I was also fed up by stopping at every corner.

    All in all, I think, stop signs should be used where you must stop and the general rules should apply everywhere else. I would just emphasize what you said: knowing the rules is not just important because you need to pass the test. This is life, it’s not a playground. You are responsible for yourself all the others on the road.

    Finally, I made up a funny hypothesis for why 4-way stops are there. So, it starts with two signs. Then, because America is the “land of the free” and everyone is created equal, two more are placed. And that’s it.

    • October 12, 2009 4:29 am

      It’s a good ‘rant’ and one I can relate to very well. Thanlks for taking the time to enlighten, or shall we say re-enlighten the world with this all truism in traffic. I should point out however that it isn’t in a clockwise fashion but rather a counter-clockwise fashion that priority is given. Think about it. If 4 people arrive at an intersection simultaneously and we allow the person to our right to proceed and then the next the the right of that person and so on, then it is in a counter-clockwise fashion and not a clockwise fashion. Sorry, but I did have to point that out. Happy trails everyone !! :o)

      • October 12, 2009 6:23 pm

        Sorry for the delay in making your post viewable. It got caught by the spam blocker for some reason.

        But, I think if you’ll think about it a bit, you’ll realize you’re wrong about the flow of traffic. Think of a 4-way where 3 cars sit stopped. Each person yields to the person to their right (so in a sense you’re right – the yielding flows counter-clockwise) but once the first car proceeds, it is the car to his left that proceeds next, as the other car is still yielding to the right. In other words, the movement of traffic is clock-wise. Whew! It starts to cramp my brain. Maybe a diagram would be the best way to go.

    • October 12, 2009 5:16 am

      I would just emphasize what you said: knowing the rules is not just important because you need to pass the test. This is life, it’s not a playground. You are responsible for yourself all the others on the road.

      And in real life, that which works on paper doesn’t always translate.

      I had always been under the impression that at a 4-way stop (in the state of GA), whoever gets there first and stops gets to go. But, if the yield-to-the-right becomes the determining factor when it seems that two cars reach their stops within seconds of each other, no wonder I’ve always been confused that the car on my left has waited me to go when I firmly believed they got there first.

      • unclejohnny permalink
        October 12, 2009 7:47 am

        My feeling is that the root of the problem is the exception in the rule. If you have to yield to the right in all cases, not just when you arrive later, then there will be no confusion.

        Of course, rules cannot desrcibe all cases. For example, when you can’t see anyone coming from the right, go into the intersection and at that very moment a guy arrives from the direction in question… Well, this is when one decides what to do depending on a miriad of factors (speed, distance done in the crossing, weather, car type, temperament, etc.) However, these issues happen much rarely if the rules are simple and build less on the person’s subjective judgement.

        Still, IMHO, the driving habits in the US are among the best ones. Driving in southern Italy, or sitting in a taxi in Beijing can be a lot more stressful. At least for me they are.

        • May 25, 2012 5:11 pm

          I’m wound down now and will soon have MORE time on here. We decided to keep Advent and Christmas silmpe this year so there isn’t much happening here except Mass and meals with family wandering into town and then back out again. 🙂 I’m here for the season and will be looking at my favorite blogs daily!

  14. Steven Harris permalink
    October 12, 2009 12:52 am

    We have this problem in the UK at roundabouts. The principle is very simple – priority should be given to vehicles on your right. But it becomes confused if there are vehicles on every road which leads to the roundabout – everyone now how a car to their right, so who should go first? I wish I could say that British politeness means we all sit there for hours until someone decides they really should get to work that day. But of course we ignore the rules anyway and make more money for motor vehicle insurance companies when we collide on the roundabout.

  15. chunter permalink
    October 11, 2009 8:40 pm

    It’s a pet peeve of mine too, along with navigating a traffic circle.

    Traffic circles are forgivable because they are rare, but 4-way stop signs are not, and it is even less forgivable when considering that its rules are based on a principle most of us learned in kindergarten: taking turns.

    For the record, cars driving in the circle have right-of-way.

    • October 11, 2009 9:35 pm

      I know! The thing is, it gets more confusing: because at a 4-way stop, you yield to the right, but in a traffic circle, you yield to the left. One goes clockwise, the other counter. It’s tough out there…

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