Even though my son Jason once turned getting his driver’s license into an odyssey, the one thing at which he excelled was knowledge of traffic rules. So I always smiled when we reached a four-way stop and he asked: “Dad, why do so many people go at the wrong time?”
That was an astute observation for someone who perfected the art of the stall before taking his road test. Still, Jason was onto something.
Sitting at a four-way stop is a laboratory of the human condition and makes for grand opera. Anyone driving through my West End neighborhood in Portland and stopping at the intersection of Brackett and Pine can get a front row seat to this daily show.
The problem is the rule itself, which is perceived as many ways as there are states in the Union. But whether in Georgia, New Mexico, or Maine, there is one common thread to the logic behind a four-way stop:
The first car there goes first. Period. Emphasis.
It sounds simple, right? But there are many things that can happen at such an intersection, and just as many personalities behind the wheels of the cars coming to a halt.
For example, let’s start with the polite wavers.
These drivers are either very skilled or very shy. Either way, their disposition is one of manners, and certainty. They want to get across the intersection alive, so letting everyone else go first makes perfect sense to them.
The problem with that reckoning is if they stop first, the rest of us are supposed to wait for them to go. What follows is endless series of waves, sign language, and indecisiveness from all cars involved. Each vehicle tries to get the other to cross, and none of them are sure if they will broadside someone, or be broadsided.
Then there are the big-truck-big-men.
Such drivers give new meaning to the term “size does matter” when they come upon a four-way stop. The bottom line here is the overall spatial displacement of their vehicles.
Basically, to these guys, what is going on at the intersection is of no consequence. When they feel they have the girth and length advantage and have come to enough of a California roll to consider a stop, they lift their feet off the brakes and barrel on through. This maneuver is often accompanied with virile glances in all directions as if to say: “No blue pill needed here, Hoss.”
Let’s not forget the opportunists.
These might be the worst of the crowd because their actions are variable; they depend on taking advantage of whatever is happening at the moment.
Drivers of this ilk typically get to the intersection last, but somehow find a way to weasel through while the rest of us wait our turn. This happens in several ways.
One is when any car at a four-way stop makes a left hand turn in front of the next car due to go. That maneuver usually blocks out two waiting cars, but the third, if occupied by an opportunist, will seize the day and closely tail the turning car while other drivers throw their hands up, exasperated.
Another wild card is pedestrians.
They have the added effect of turning normal, rules-abiding motorists into opportunists. If a pedestrian starts to cross in any direction, drivers who see they can go often will, even if they were the last ones coming to a halt.
And yes, there are those pedestrians who decide to walk out a few yards, and then turn into polite wavers themselves, their smiles and good will on parade in the middle of the intersection.
The list of usual suspects who steer clear of simplicity at a four-way stop is endless. Several books can’t hold the vignettes to be told about this traffic anomaly. Maybe you can all drop me a line with your best stories, and if I get enough good ones, I’ll compile them into another piece.
Update!!! Just to demonstrate how interactive a blog can be, scroll down to the comments and read Ms. Smith’s question about cars which arrive at the intersection simultaneously.
The answer: it depends on each individual state. Without belaboring permutations and combinations to the nth degree, some give the “person on the right has the right of way,” answer, which doesn’t account for cars across from each other. Others give the quite helpful “make eye contact with the other driver and see what happens” advice, and still others stay silent on the issue.
Perhaps this is best summed up by Mr. Logan, who left a comment on my Facebook posting of this blog, where he expressed his disdain for 4-way stops by baptizing them with the moniker of “idiot-magnet.”
Meanwhile, it took Jason a few extra years, but he finally went out on that road test. As discussed above, one maneuver didn’t faze him in the least.