Four-way stops are civilized society's ultimate challenge

Wednesday, September 30, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 3:09 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Considering they are as prevalent in Columbia as coffee shops, one would assume that residents might be as proficient at navigating four-way stops as they are at ordering lattes. 

But you know what they say about assuming. 

After four months of very unscientific data collection and speaking with numerous locals, I found an evident inability for many Columbia residents to handle four-way stops. Granted, these enigmas can be tricky with all that braking and proceeding in an orderly fashion, but the situation in this town has gotten out of hand and needs to be addressed. 

Having only lived in Columbia for a little more than a year, I have a unique perspective on this issue. When I first arrived in town, I was without car and biked everywhere.  In the interest of full disclosure, my bike was not registered or outfitted with the proper lighting, and because of a stubborn adolescent streak, I refused to wear a helmet because it didn’t look cool.

But I did abide by the rules of the road, and never once did I have trouble at a four-way stop or an intersection. In fact, I have yet to encounter a bicycle-hating motorist. For this reason, much of the tension in this town between the two groups has bewildered me.

I returned to Columbia with my car at the beginning of this summer and was interested to see whether I would become a fist-shaking motorist foaming at the mouth. Lo and behold, I've yet to have a bad encounter with a bicyclist.  Instead, what I discovered was a horrible tendency for this town’s motorists to make every four-way stop into the most daunting of challenges.

Now, my biking anecdote is not meant to imply that bicyclists are faultless (I’ve witnessed many an act that should have earned someone a Darwin Award).  More than anything, I mean to point out that this town’s motorists often live in an ivory tower in which they have no right to keep residence. Residents suffer from a horrible lack of four-way-stop IQ and need a refresher. 

First off, let’s stop the waving matches. Politeness is a respectable personality trait, but the person who waves first gets the points. If someone waves you on, the only waving you should be doing is to say "thank you" as you roll through the intersection. These politeness standoffs do no good and often lead to the infuriating double start.

The double start takes place when both polite parties reach a waving stalemate and decide simultaneously to accept the other’s graciousness. If you have ever gotten caught in this mind-boggling conundrum, you know how maddening and potentially dangerous it can be. So let’s agree that the waving matches are out. Accept the first wave and move on with your day.   

I have also noticed a misunderstanding when it comes to the order at a four-way stop.  As stated in the Missouri Department of Revenue's Driver Guide, “At a four-way stop, the driver reaching the intersection first may proceed before the other drivers (after coming to a complete stop).” 

Although I am disturbed that the key aspect of stopping is an afterthought cast aside by parentheses, logically speaking, this means keep the same rotation that previously existed before you got to the intersection. If two cars are so bold as to go at the same time because their paths will not cross, then simply continue the pattern beginning with the two lanes that did not participate in the simultaneous crossing. (Illustrations available upon request.)

When reaching a four-way stop at the same time as one other vehicle, the generally accepted rule is for the car on the right to proceed. Write this down. Tape it to your dashboard. Let’s all agree, here and now, that this is how we will handle this situation from here on out.

When three vehicles arrive to a four-way stop at the same time, the two vehicles that are going in opposite directions normally would proceed first.  Unfortunately, I have seen this process fail almost daily. When in doubt, revert back to the two-car rule and let the person on your right proceed.     

There are really no rules for the arrival of four cars at the same time. This is the Wild West. The two-car right rule can't be applied since everyone has someone to the right, and the three-car rule is tough to coordinate. This situation depends on a wave through, and then a normal rotation can begin. And remember, if you are the one waved through, just go.

Four-way stops are the ultimate test of a civilized society. Everyone has to agree upon a set of rules and then be willing to abide by them. This is an educated town with three institutions of higher learning within miles of one another, and I am confident residents can buck this trend.  For if they do, then maybe I will give all these cyclist complaints a little more credence. 

Andrew Del-Colle is the Arts editor for Vox Magazine and a graduate student at the Missouri School of Journalism.



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