A stop sign just means “stop.” Or does it?
Children can’t muster the attention to address subtleties, and so parents and teachers drill them in simple rules. So, just “stop.” Or “stop, and look both ways.”
With time and experience, though, all but the most stiff-necked among us place rules in some perspective.
Testing the rules — flouting the rules — can be a phase of growth in adolescence. With CyclingSavvy, we go beyond that, and “beyond” means that we don’t just obey the traffic law, we make it work for us.
Now let’s apply that idea to stop signs.
Stop, and yield
A stop sign law doesn’t just say “stop.” Stopping is only the first action a stop sign requires — not the most important or most demanding action either.
That action is yielding. Yielding prevents collisions. A building, vegetation, parked car, etc., may hide traffic in a cross street, so pulling forward and blocking the crosswalk may be necessary. It may, then, be necessary to yield more than once.
No driver can claim “right of way”. That claim is upside down, because you can start out, then find that you have to yield. The rules of movement are about cooperation, not entitlement.
How many times might it be necessary to yield at the little intersection in the photo? Hint: all vehicles are parked except the gray one moving right to left.
Three times — before the crosswalk if another pedestrian is stepping into it; again, on entering the street, and once more when able to peek around the gray SUV illegally parked on the right corner.
If sight lines are very poor, it may even be necessary to inch out slowly into the cross street, requiring traffic in that street to yield. And if there is another vehicle behind you, you can’t back up. Not so simple…
Stickler for stopping?
Customs vary, and police may or may not be sticklers for the letter of the law about stop signs. In Massachusetts, where I live, hardly anyone comes to a full stop except to pass a driver’s licensing exam, unless necessary to yield.
It is especially inconvenient for a bicyclist to stop, lose momentum, put a foot down and have to restart. So, I’m not going to be stiff-necked about full stops. It is of paramount importance though to send the message that you will yield, by at least slowing to a crawl when you haven’t reached the stop line yet. Showing that you will yield maintains respect for bicyclists, which is already in short supply.
You can be a stickler without putting a foot down! CyclingSavvy shows how to do the “balance stop”: braking to bring the bicycle’s wheels momentarily to a stop while shifting body mass forward to maintain momentum and balance. It’s legal.
Often, too, you can slow to reach an intersection at the same time as a gap in cross traffic. We practice slow riding in our course.
Stop signs and groups
It is most efficient to approach a two-way stop riding two abreast. Each side-by-side pair of bicyclists in a well-organized group checks for cross traffic before entering the intersection. At a 4-way stop, the cross traffic is also required to stop, and a group of bicyclists may move through together like a bus. This is more efficient for the cross traffic too. Every individual still should check for cross traffic.The CyclingSavvy Club Rider Essentials course describes this technique while acknowledging that it is not technically legal. It could become legal with changes in the law.
Stop signs and shared-use paths
Shared-use paths create a quandary where they cross streets. Drivers on the street must yield to pedestrians, as at any crosswalk. Yet stop signs are often posted facing the path to warn bicyclists to slow and stop. Because bicyclists are faster than pedestrians, this may be necessary so motorists can see the bicyclists in time to yield. So — two contradictory rules apply: the crosswalk requires drivers in the street to yield — but the stop sign requires bicyclists on the path to yield. All too often, bicyclists on the path and drivers in the street both yield, causing unnecessary delay and confusion.
Very often, a vehicle would have cleared the crossing before I reach it, and nobody would have had to wait if it had just kept going. But to cross safely if one driver stops, a bicyclist must wait till drivers in every lane stop. I don’t think that there is a good solution short of installing traffic signals, which are expensive and impose their own version of delay!
Paths often have stop signs even at one-lane roads and driveways where motorists will be traveling very slowly and sight lines are wide open. This overuse of stop signs leads to disrespect for them.
Stop, and then walk?
Or signs may instruct bicyclists to walk across. This may make sense for people with poor bike-handling skills. But, the safety advantage of walking with a bicycle broadside to the cross traffic is open to question, and also, for sure, it takes longer.
No stop sign and so, no stop?
The absence of a stop sign should not lead to the assumption that yielding is unnecessary. At an uncontrolled intersection, drivers yield to traffic coming from the right; at a T intersection, the driver coming up from the bottom of the T yields. (Why? Turning drivers must yield to through traffic, and this driver can only turn right or left.)
Sidepaths and barrier-separated bikeways often overturn the usual rules of movement, placing through-traveling bicyclists in the path of turning motorists. Signs may instruct the motorists to yield, but bicyclists must be prepared to scan for motorists coming from behind, and yield to avoid being hit.
There is a strong tendency in the USA to micromanage priority at intersections using stop signs. Political pressure leads to the installation of stop signs where yield signs would be sufficient — sight lines are clear. This can lead to a “cry wolf” situation devaluing the message of stop signs where they are really needed. It also can lead people to assume that there is no need to check for cross traffic if there is no stop sign, as in examples already given in this article.
In western mountain states, like Montana, you will find that most residential intersections have no stop signs. The default rules for yielding apply. As a bonus, motorists are conditioned actually to look for conflicting traffic as they approach intersections instead of just looking for a stop sign. The result is they are very good at seeing and yielding to pedestrians.
Could it be that unnecessary stop signs dumb down the environment and make us all less safe?
Stop-signs and the spirit of the law
The saying that we make the law work for us reminds us to create safe space in which to ride. We take actions beyond the requirements of law to make our intentions clear, and to find empty space on busy streets. And sometimes, we lightly bend the law, or expand on it, when its word is too blunt to live up to its spirit. That is often the case with stop signs.
Another CyclingSavvy saying is “don’t let the paint think for you.” We might also say: “don’t let a stop sign — or the absence of one — think for you.” As I hope that this article has made clear, the traffic law offers only a framework for behavior. Stop signs and the laws that apply to them do not remove the need for situational awareness. Simple rules may be the best we can do for schoolchildren, and for assigning fault in case of a crash. Mature behavior in the real world has to be based on respect for law — but goes beyond the requirements of law. It also accounts for mistakes other travelers may make, and it fundamentally reflects the spirit of the law, a spirit of cooperation.