Vista Point: Pondering our fates at the four-way stop

By Matthew C. Durkee, The Triplicate February 05, 2013 02:30 pm

Let’s talk, you and me, about other drivers. I feel sorry for them. I really do. They’re so much dumber than us.

They can’t remember to use the turn signal because they’re too busy trying to remember where they were supposed to go. 

They think the “three-second rule” refers not to following distance but to how much time it takes to fish a french fry out of their crotch before it leaves a grease spot.

Not even counting themselves, other drivers have to deal with a lot of mental challenges on the road.

One of the worst is clearly the stop sign, which compels the more observant among them to look up from their text messages.

Every time you meet other drivers at an intersection, you can see them struggle with its permutations:

“Hmm. Pedestrians. If they don’t get out of my way, is there a height requirement for the ones I can run over?”

“How far over the stop line do I have to go before I can stop?”

“I know what the Go pedal does, but I’m not sure what the other one’s for.”

And because other drivers are confused at stop signs, I’m confused when I meet them at a corner: I don’t know what kind of befuddled driver I’m dealing with. 

Are other drivers crawling to a stop because they want me to decide who has right of way or do they just intend to keep rolling right through the intersection?

Are other drivers looking at me because they want me to go first or because they’re awed by my pinkness?

The ultimate stop sign challenge for all of us — because our time, property and lives are especially at the mercy of other drivers, is at the four-way stop, a staple of Del Norte County traffic flow.

I think other drivers invented the four-way stop.

In principle, it should be a simple matter. Four stop signs. Four vehicles. Everyone takes their turn. The driver who gets there first goes first. A tie goes to the driver on the right-hand side. Unfortunately this breaks down as soon as other drivers have to figure out which hand is their right one.

Even the DMV is confused by the four-way stop. Although it notes in the California Driver Handbook that “driving through an intersection is one of the most complex traffic situations motorists encounter,” and it points out that nationally more than 45 percent of crashes happen in intersections, the handbook devotes less ink to navigating intersections than almost any other topic, as if they’re something any idiot can handle. Idiots can’t even handle their french fries.

The driver handbook doesn’t specifically mention four-way stops at all. That’s right. The most confusing scenario in the driving experience gets zero mention.

So what do you do if four vehicles all arrive at a four-way stop at the same time? The handbook passes over this conundrum in silence, apparently hoping you won’t notice. With ambiguity like that, it’s a good thing vehicle accidents aren’t a major cause of accidental death in this country. 

A lot of the strange driving tics you and I encounter in other drivers at the four-way stop seem to demonstrate some kind of understandable fear of having to think.

Rarely sure who has the right of way, timid drivers like to exaggerate their crawl to a stop just to avoid the tension of deciding who got there first. Impatient drivers will, when they see another car coming, slam on the brakes up to a car length behind the intersection to preemptively claim right of way.

Then there are the power-trip drivers, self-appointed traffic cops who don’t care if they have right of way, they just like to tell everyone else what to do. They use hand signals to tell you to go first, and then rather more colorful hand signals if you refuse their imaginative reinterpretation of driving rules. 

It’s bizarre that an important traffic decision boils down to personality. We invest a fortune on traffic signs, painted lines, stop lights (maybe not quite a fortune on Del Norte’s handful) and so forth to clearly delineate who goes when, but when it comes to stop signs in general and four-way stops in particular, most decision-making boils down to anxiety, impatience and fear of other drivers.

So let’s not kid ourselves. Sometimes you’re the other driver. Sometimes I am.

And when we chance to meet at the next four-way stop, I hope you won’t take it personally if I just make a U-turn and avoid the situation altogether. I’ll understand if you do the same.

Reach assistant editor Matthew Durkee at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it