Contempt for Stop Signs
Tom Vanderbilt’s article on Stop Signs in Slate yesterday, Stop! Is it possible to design a better stop sign?, raises some good points about our traffic culture.
In 1998… there were more than 700,000 crashes at intersections marked—or “controlled,” as engineers say—by stop signs. More than 3,000 of these were fatal.
Having nearly been the victim of motorists phoning it in at stop signs, this stat comes as no surprise to me. I actually changed one of my commute routes from a residential bike route street to a busier 4-lane road after too many close calls with these comatose clowns.
The article goes on to discuss Lauder’s “Take Turns” sign and the history of how the current sign came about. But any discussion of redesigning the stop sign should take a back seat to the social issues involved in these crashes.
Stop sign compliance has historically been low and is declining:
A 1968 study in Berkeley, Calif., published in Law & Society Review, found that just 14 percent of drivers brought their cars to a full stop “without being forced to do so by cross traffic”
No one has more doggedly pursued the question of stop-sign compliance than John Trinkaus, who conducted an annual stopping survey at the same intersection for nine straight years in the 1970s and ’80s, finding a creeping decline. In his culminating 1997 masterwork, “Stop Sign Compliance: A Final Look,” Trinkaus revisits his old intersection and finds that the percentage of people making a full stop had dropped from 37 percent in 1979 to a mere 3 percent.
Keep in mind, this is motorists we’re talking about! So maybe when people point fingers at cyclists, we should just point out that most cyclists are simply motorists driving bicycles, engaging in the same behavior, with the advantage of better visibility. Not condoning it, just sayin’.
This is my favorite part because it’s a root cause of a lot of the problems we face:
[T]raffic is a social environment, and authors like Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone, or Jean Twenge in Generation Me, have argued that stop sign scofflawism is one minor indicator, among many, of a larger societal shift: a decline of civility and reciprocity, a lesser willingness to follow social rules. The argument is that a society marked by increased self-regard (and hence less regard for others), has neither the inclination nor the situational awareness required to accommodate others, whether by signaling one’s intentions, stopping for pedestrians in a crosswalk, or heeding the familiar red octagon.
No stop sign discussion is complete without pointing out the over-use of stop signs for traffic calming. This just feeds into the Culture of Me behaviors noted above. Do we see a self-reinforcing downward spiral here?
On the other hand, traffic engineers have long known that excessive signage declines in effectiveness. This points to something of a Catch-22. Residents of a neighborhood may complain about drivers speeding down their street and petition the city to install stop signs. But stop signs are not a safety device as such, nor a traffic-calming device: They exist to assign right of way. Faced with more stop signs, some studies have shown, drivers may actually drive faster to make up time lost for stopping at (or really, slowing through) the intersection; the more signs installed, the lower the compliance.
The dumbing down of American drivers is another favorite subject:
John Staddon, a professor of psychology at Duke University, notes another problem: “The overabundance of stop signs teaches drivers to be less observant of cross traffic and to exercise less judgment when driving—instead, they look for signs and drive according to what the signs tell them to do.”
There are still a few cities which have not dumbed down drivers with stop signs in neighborhoods. Seems they do pretty well when required to think and pay attention.
In Portland and Seattle, for example, local neighborhoods are filled with any number of four-way intersections without any signs. And somehow drivers continue to negotiate these intersections safely, year after year, in the absence of clear instruction.
So before we talk about redesigning the sign, we should try using it properly. But once you’ve dumbed down the culture, can you fix it? How do you go back without the obvious freakouts and political pressure? Taking traffic calming stop signs out of neighborhoods will be like taking binkies from 2-year-olds. Do our politicians have the integrity and cojones to do that?
[i]n crashes, the largest problem is not visibility but driver behavior—drivers either do not come to a full stop or pull out too close to an approaching car (one study found that only 17 percent of crashes at stop-sign controlled intersections involved drivers who “blew” the sign). In this regard trying to improve driver behavior through better signage is as futile as fighting illiteracy with better fonts.
That’s a keeper, Tom, thanks! Yes, it always comes back to behavior. As my friend John Allen says, you can’t fix a software problem with a hardware solution.