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?

Vanderbilt concludes:

[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.

28 replies
  1. Rick
    Rick says:

    I can relate to this. I have stopped using Hampton Avenue south of Colonial because of the stop signs on every block and because motorists blow through them. I find Primrose a safer North-South route.

  2. Alexwarrior
    Alexwarrior says:

    Agreed. The residential streets by my house have a lot of stop sign running vehicles that seem to not even slow down. It’s a problem for the cars too, as I hear lots of honks between them when this happens outside from my house.

    This one was right outside the house:

    And this one on the designated residential bike route:

    The on-street residential bike route down the hill from me though has so much bike traffic that everyone who drives there knows they have to watch out – safety in numbers!

  3. JAT in Seattle
    JAT in Seattle says:

    I live in one of those un-signed neighborhoods and i can tell you that part of how we manage to negotiate the intersections is that some drivers over-compensate for the cluelessness / aggressiveness of others – we’re always yielding to drivers approaching from the left because we know THRY AREN’T GOING TO.

    The over-politeness of Seattle (and Portland) traffic drives newcomers nuts.

    My thirteen yr old son asked me the other day if driving is hard. I said it’s not hard, but it’s the most dangerous activity that we regularly engage in and there are some rules and not everybody knows what they are, so you can’t ever not pay attention.

    I like the idea of the Take Turns sign, I just don’t have any faith in my fellow road users to actually do it.

  4. fred_dot_u
    fred_dot_u says:

    I like the reference to “The Culture of Me” in this post and in the original post from which it came. Because of the nature of the vehicle I operate, I’ve become a stop-sign-fanatic, which really isn’t a negative thing, is it? It’s tough to overpower the urge to stop at a stop sign when I’m walking or riding my unicycle, but I’m able to do so.

    The sad part of the “Culture of Me” with respect to a cyclist is that it has to be. I was chastised in a YouTube comment about my cycling practices, but you really have to be on top of everything to keep safe. It sure is “Me” but it’s “Everyone Else” too.

  5. bencott
    bencott says:

    i’m convinced that none of these problems will abate until road conditions and driver behavior get so bad that there’s a massive backlash and subsequent reforms. public opinion needs to shift away from self entitlement, and people need to learn how to cooperate once again. long story short, it’s going to get a lot worse before it gets any better. in the meantime we just have to adapt our attitudes and practices to maintain our safety and right to use the roads.

    oh, and Fred, the “Culture of Me” is the reason people see cyclists who take a proactive approach to their own safety as selfish. only the most self entitled individuals could think everyone staying out of their way takes precedence over anyone’s safety. it’s ass backwards, but that’s the irrational world we live in.

  6. Kevin Love
    Kevin Love says:

    In The Netherlands, stop signs are very rare. Yield signs are commonly used to indicate right-of-way. NL has the safest roads in the world.

    When I was younger, stop signs were a lot rarer and yield signs more common. The proliferation of stop signs in North America does not seem to be a good idea.

    The best methods of “traffic calming” appear to be those that prevent cars from using residential neighbourhoods as through routs. But cycle trips are easy, convenient and direct. Groningen provides excellent examples of this. See:

  7. Brian DeSousa
    Brian DeSousa says:

    I agree on the point of behavior, but on the other hand, the stop sign is used for two different purposes: (1) to assign right-of-way, and (2) where it is really needed to come to a full stop due to sight lines, etc.

    I have a cabin in a mountain town, population 3000, with a 1/2 mile by 2 mile grid of 20 mph roads, except for the main road going through town. Previously, only intersections with the main road had stop signs. Within the past couple of years, every intersection in town has been signed as two way stops!

    So to a certain extent the reduced motorist compliance may also be driven by the increased proliferation of stop signs, especially when they are used to seeing them in places where the signs appear simply to assign right-of-way.

    Although the irony in my mountain town is that the proliferation of stop signs may be a result of drivers nowadays exceeding the 20 mph speed limit!

  8. Ed W
    Ed W says:

    I wrote a piece about stop signs for the Red Dirt Pedalers newsletter, and it’s been posted to the Examiner too. I was somewhat dismays to see that Tom Vanderbilt had a take on it too, but his is slightly different. I suggested replacing many neighborhood stop signs with yields since that would align with driver’s behavior, and it may serve to enhance compliance at remaining stop signs – if they’re not over-used.

    It’s a weird synchronicity, though.

  9. Laura M
    Laura M says:

    From a traffic operations standpoint, stop signs are just plain stupid in most cases. I like how the Netherlands deal with it by mostly using yeild signs.

    A lot of people don’t like Delaney b/c of the medians and traffic circles. The circles do work even though a lot of motorists tend to just blow through them, they still will slow a bit before proceeding and cars coming from the side street are better able to make lefts and rights b/c they have right of way when entering the circle. Where they fail is when people unfamiliar with them don’t know how to use them properly. Sure they’re not perfect, but they slow traffic, don’t stop it. Motorists like to constantly be moving, not stopping and starting.

    Compare them to the 4-way stops along Lake Margaret in Conway where traffic backs up 5-10 cars deep at times. I would argue that a traffic circle would help keep the cars flowing, they’d still back up, but moving.

    Also Keri, thank you for pointing out that motorists are as guilty of blowing through stop signs as any other driver. I admit I don’t come to a complete stop at many stop signs, mostly because it kills momentum. But I’m a fairly cautious rider and do slow way down. I just don’t unclip and put my foot down. Which would be akin to a motorist undoing their seatbelt, opening their car door and putting their left foot on the ground.

    In so many ways, engineers and transportation planners have been stopping traffic and creating more congestion in their efforts to ‘manage’ it. When in reality a better system is one where we have more streets, more grids, fewer lanes, but more routes to choose from. I understand that the best traffic calming is to remove all signage – it makes drivers more aware of their surroundings and forces them to actually scan the roadway ahead, looking out for conflicts and other obstacles.

  10. Mighk
    Mighk says:

    “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.”

    From the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) (page 1A-4):

    “A standard device used where it is not appropriate is as objectionable as a nonstandard device; in fact, this might be worse, because such misuse might result in disrespect at those locations where the device is needed and appropriate.”

    Only when traffic engineers are professionally punished for placing unwarranted stop signs will they start removing them. (But to defend the engineers, many, if not most, unwarranted stop signs are due to political pressure.)

  11. JesseR
    JesseR says:

    Excellent article. Thanks!!!

    As far as our culture goes, here are some problems: Speedometers go up to 100, 120, and 180. It is not legal to drive this fast, yet we make vehicles that do. This does two things: (1) it causes people to think they’re only going a fraction of how fast they really could. And (2) it takes, statistically, the most dangerous consumer product we create as human beings and adds a “setting” for illegal use.

    We should put governors on automobiles that don’t let them go above 75mph. They should not have an option to go higher in the same way that chainsaws don’t have a “massacre” setting.

    We should also lower speed limits in general. How much faster than 35 do we need to go? Yes, people would complain. But what’s right is not always popular and what’s popular isn’t always right. I bet when people are taking twice as long to commute, urban sprawl would decline. Fuel efficiency would go up. Pollution would go down. And the roads would be much more inviting for bicyclists. Just sayin.

    • Mighk
      Mighk says:

      The speedometer thing is a no-brainer.

      Governors set at 75 mph? Look for big fight. Indeed, it was the threat of speed governors in the early 1920s that got the auto industry/advocacy folks riled up and organized into the powerhouse they are today.

      Posting lower speeds? Sorry, but that’s going to go nowhere, too. Most of our collector and arterial streets are designed to accommodate traffic of 40 to 50 mph (a new John Young Pkwy section is being designed at 65 mph). Post a lower speed and write citations and the traffic citation attorneys will simply make the argument that the roadways were designed for the old, higher speed, and the citations will be thrown out. It’s happened before.

      The best way to get traffic to slow down is to get more vehicular cyclists on our roadways.

      • JesseR
        JesseR says:

        Unfortunately these are all rhetorical suggestions, completely because of our flawed framework. It seems that our focus, as a people, on the Individual so readily overrides what’s right (like the desire to want to get somewhere faster, or the knee-jerk reaction to slower speed limits being how My day will be affected) that we ignore the cold, hard, and undeniable facts of the dangers of motor vehicles–vehicular deaths being rivaled by only another symptom of our laziness: the heart diseases, the first among them being coronary heart disease. We dismiss it all, ignore it, refuse to even present it to people, understanding that the junkie will ignore everything that gets in the way of his fix. One of our most basic goals as living creatures is to stay alive, and we have data that show how we move around is killing us–again, only topped by diseases that are a symptom of how we eat and (ha-ha) how we *don’t* move around.

        But where there is an excess of resources here that produces a people whose pleasure-oriented food kills them more than anything else, there are nearly one billion hungry and starving people (one in every six of us humans). While there is a dearth of resources, a lack of electricity, a lack of water that keeps African women raped as they walk miles to get it, there are fools at the top of the hill racing around in their excessive chariots, crashing into each other, killing each other with another symptom of their excess. You could call it social flab. You could say give ’em enough rope…You could say it’s an inefficient model of human being fazing itself out.

        I am not sure I believe that vehicular cyclists will slow this flab, this decay, this social rotting that has occurred in many countries, such as mine, as a result of excess (thousands of pounds of metal, plastic, rubber, glass, and petroleum being used to make it easier for 170 lbs of meat to get from point A to point B). But I believe that when there are enough vehicular cyclists on the road to actually make that difference, it will be a sign not of our ability to slow down traffic, but of our success in slowing down the death of our society. And when that happens, the mindset would be so different that I couldn’t even imagine what kinds of laws would get passed. I like to think, though, that lower speed limits would be considered.

      • fred_dot_u
        fred_dot_u says:

        Mighk points out one of my favorite concepts. Traffic providing traffic calming. Many moons ago, there was a news article about a neighborhood in the general Orlando area. It’s one big mass in my alleged mind, so the specific area does not stand out. The residents of the neighborhood were upset with traffic using the streets as a cut-through to avoid a number of traffic lights.

        They built their own speed bumps, after petitioning the powers-that-be to do something about the excessive speed and number of vehicles and drivers in the area. Of course, the powers-that-be were alarmed that there were speed bumps and required them to be removed.

        I was not able to find a single contact for anyone at the time, otherwise I would have suggested that the home owners band together for a morning and afternoon bike ride, safely controlling the lanes, of course.

        I’ll never know, but I think it might have worked and I also think it would have brought neighbors closer together too. They might have had fun!

    • Columbusite
      Columbusite says:

      The speed limit cap is a great idea and I’ve advocated for roads here to be redesigned to have a limit of 25 MPH on residential streets and 35 MPH on commercial streets. Funny thing is on one road where they implemented traffic calming in the outskirts where the street grid starts to unravel, a couple of cars have hit the…I think they’re chicanes or bump-outs, and have gone off the road and even crashed into a nearby home since they were going like 50 in a 35 MPH zone. The complaints by residents are directed towards removing the traffic calming, not those drivers from the road. The article is quite something. Note the use of the term “accidents”.

      It’s also interesting that I don’t consider my travel speeds to be unbearable: the illusion of 15MPH being slow comes from sitting in a wide vehicle. If you take a motorist and have them go 15 or 20 MPH on a bike I’m quite certain they won’t find those speeds to be slow.

  12. Nancy
    Nancy says:

    @JesseR, you raise a great point about the way cars are marketed to the public. I think there should be a law against car ads that show vehicles being used in an illegal, unsafe manner [no more of this “Closed course, professional driver” fine print crap]. From an early age, Americans who watch TV are constantly bombarded with seductive images of cars being driven in a way that even the manufacturers don’t recommend. We banned cigarette ads from TV because they encouraged people to do something dangerous, but we let these outrageous car ads continue, even though motor vehicle crashes kill and seriously injure more people per year than cigarettes ever did.

    I also agree about speed limits, but I would go down to 25MPH as the max for residential and urban areas — any place where there is pedestrian activity.

  13. Ed W
    Ed W says:

    Mighk is right about the resistance to lower speed limits. There’s no political will for reduced speeds. In fact, one of the comments made about infrastructure ‘improvements’ in my home town involved increasing speed limits on arterial streets from 35mph to some unspecified higher one. According to the author, this would make driving more fun.

    If I recall right, Subaru had a parental mode on their cars that limited the top speed. Obviously, anyone with a new teenage driver would be interested.

    Also, one of the lesser known facts about our cars is that the electronic management unit has a memory that records the last several minutes of operation, including the speed, throttle setting, and brake application. These are used by many police departments and insurance companies for accident investigation. There is some dispute as to whether these agencies should be able to access that data without the owners permission.

  14. Nancy
    Nancy says:

    Mighk and EdW — people were also resistant to mandatory seat belt laws and banning of smoking in restaurants and other places, but now there is good compliance.

    In many densely inhabited areas, 20 or 25MPH is the effective average speed limit, even if the posted limit is higher, because of congestion and/or the way traffic lights are timed. However, when given a chance, motorists will speed between traffic lights [then slam on the brakes and wait for the light to change], which is dangerous for peds trying to cross mid-block [whether at marked crosswalks or not] and for other road users such as cyclists.

  15. Kevin Love
    Kevin Love says:

    Jesse wrote:
    “We should put governors on automobiles that don’t let them go above 75mph”

    Kevin’s comment:
    As of January 1, 2009, large trucks using Ontario’s roads have been legally required to have a speed limiter set at 105 km/hr (65 MPH).

    The caraholics protested against this legislation, saying it was the thin edge of the wedge – cars would be next. The protests were in vain; the enabling legislation passed the Legislative Assembly and received Royal Assent in June 2008.

    I agree with the caraholics, which is why I supported the legislation. I want implementation in cars. Successful implementation in trucks should lead to implementation in cars. Indeed, that conversation has already started.

    For details, see:

    • Mighk
      Mighk says:

      Of course a 65 mph cap is virtually irrelevant for us as cyclists. Our problems are on roads with much lower posted speeds. The ultimate governor technology would involve wireless communications in which the speed limit sign would just be a transmitter which tells passing vehicles how fast they can go.

      • ChipSeal
        ChipSeal says:

        Excessive speed by automobiles is not really a hazard for most cycling as long as the motorist is able to obey the rest of the traffic control devices on the street.

        Lower speed limits might make cycling more pleasant for cyclists, but it would have little, if any, material safety consequences for them.

        • Nancy
          Nancy says:

          Chipseal [how’s the defense going? I contributed to it], I have to heartily disagree. Excessive speed can turn what might be a minor collision into a fatal accident. And since when did drivers obey all the rest of traffic control devices?

          Excessive speed might not matter as long as everybody’s paying attention and lucky, but it makes it pretty darn hard for me to cross my own street when most of the drivers speed.

          Speeding also reduces the amount of time anyone has to react to a developing situation.

  16. John Hopkins
    John Hopkins says:

    The lower highway speeds that were set for a while during Jimmy Carter’s presidency did save a lot of lives and motor fuel. Unfortunately, they also became one of the gripes that people held against Carter when they made Ronald Reagan president. I wonder if the current spill in the Gulf of Mexico would make lower speeds more palatable than they were 30 years ago.

  17. John Hopkins
    John Hopkins says:

    Actually, it was Richard Nixon — in response to the 1973 Arab oil embargo — who set the national speed limit of 55 mph. Carter simply advocated that we obey the limit and pointed out the good it was doing.

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