11/02/2012

When I am King: Stop Stop Signs

When I am King...

There will be no more four-way stops.

You know the scenario: you pull up to the intersection, see there’s a stop sign, and come to a stop. You see cars coming from the other directions, so you wait for them to pass. But they slow down and stop instead. At this point, you realize that it’s a four-way stop sign, and that you were there before them, so it must be your turn. But by the time you start to pull out, these other cars have decided that you took too long, so they’ve started to pull out. You stop to avoid hitting them, by which time they’ve seen you start to pull out, so they stop. You wave them to go ahead, they wave at you, then you both start again, and both stop again. Meanwhile, more cars have come from all directions, including cars behind you, and they’re all waiting for you to get your little start/stop shuffle over with so that they can begin their own turn.

Four-way stops suck. They’re dependent on drivers that: (a) are polite and wait in turn for others to go and (b) remember when everyone got there. The first of these is obviously ridiculous. The second is patently impossible. I have a hard enough time remember when I arrived; now I’m supposed to figure out when everyone else got there as well?

If it were only four directions, it might be possible to do this. But usually such an intersection has as many as two to three lanes in each direction. the one nearest my house has four lanes going north, and four going south and two lanes each going east/west. That’s a total of twelve cars at any one time that I have to keep track of. More to the point, there are eleven other drivers that I have to trust also knowing the order in which everyone got there. Then you throw a pedestrian into the mix sauntering along the crosswalk, and all hell breaks loose and it’s as much as you can do not to run them over in spite.

We’ve got enough to deal with in our driving lives: high gas prices, road rage to keep in check, traffic to contend with, and other drivers to unfairly cut off so that we can arrive at work one car length earlier. Do we really need to add these multi-way stop hassles to it?

The response from some people when seeing this mess is that these intersections should be replaced by roundabouts. I’ve seen these work in England with great effectiveness, as cars go speeding into and out of the circle by achieving terminal velocity in the gravitational field of the roundabout. It looks like great fun and seems effective at keeping the traffic moving. The Arc de Triomphe roundabout in Paris also seems to work, although it seems more like a method to cut down on the driving population. But if you’ve ever seen one of these attempted in the U.S., you’ll know that it’s never going to work here. No matter what signage is there, nobody can ever figure out when they’re supposed to go, so either they wait forever until they think the coast is clear, or they just decide they have the right of way and go bombing into the intersection regardless of who was there already. I saw one of these installed in South Carolina a couple of years ago and some of the first cars to reach it are still waiting to enter the circle.

When I am King, there will be a technological solution to the problem. Just as traffic lights allow everyone to proceed safely even as they make people feel better about cheating the system by speeding through the yelllow-red, the new four-way stops will be both effective and and fair. In a world where tiny phones can correctly interpret sentences to return search results, it surely lies within our grasp to have the intersections themselves detect who got there first. Signals at the intersection will indicate which car should go first at any given time. If, as in a traditional 4-way stop, other cars try to race into the intersection first, a trap door will open up under those vehicles, removing the cars and their drivers from the intersection and from future intersection disagreements.

Clearly, this problem has to stop.
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