I recently implored drivers to refrain from performing rolling stops. Though it's a minor violation ($110 fine and 3 demerit points in Ontario), when you roll through a stop sign you run the risk of causing damage or hurting someone. It's a bad habit. Many agreed but there was a vocal and passionate group who contacted me arguing that, far from protecting people, stop signs are the cause of much of the danger.
John Newell cited a stop sign at the corner of Oxton Avenue and Oriole Parkway in Toronto as an example. Between July, 2006 and 2009 there have been 25 collisions there, he said, 16 of these were rear-end collisions. None involved pedestrians or cyclists. "This stop sign has nothing to do with safety and everything to do with power and politics. It will remain until there is the will to reserve stop signs for the specific purpose they were intended for, then motorists will treat them with the respect they deserve."
The power and politics he's referring to lie with North American municipal governments and their inclination to use stop signs as a universal cure-all, the same way we use Aspirin. Got an ache? Take a pill. Got a traffic problem you don't know how to solve? Stick up a stop sign. It can reach epidemic proportions. In the 1990s, the small Quebec town of Côte Saint-Luc had 1,200 stop signs and a grassroots movement formed to weed them down.
Stop-sign haters have been around almost as long as the red menace itself. In 1979, a concerned citizen interrupted a campaign town hall to tell U.S. President Jimmy Carter that if he took down a third of the stop signs in the United States, then he could cut oil imports by 50 per cent. Carter laughed it off. City planners across North America spent the next two decades throwing up a stop sign any time a resident raised a fuss.
No one's smiling now and the evidence against the effectiveness of stop signs has piled up. They create stop-and-start traffic that causes increased air and noise pollution. Instead of calming traffic, they can agitate it. While studies show that drivers do slow around 100 feet before the stop sign and 100 feet after it, they actually speed up in between them to make up for lost time. A proliferation of stop signs can actually increase peak speeds. The result is neighbourhood NASCAR with residents doing their best Dale Earnhardt Jr. impersonation on quiet streets.
Another unintended consequence is that stop signs create a false sense of security among pedestrians. They see the big red octagon and think they're safe. They're not. The more stop signs they see the more drivers can become immune – hence the rolling stop.
Perhaps the only group who hates stop signs more than drivers is cyclists. Often lambasted for blowing through them, cyclists argue that 30-pound bicycles should not be treated the same way as 3,000-pound cars. In July, cyclists in San Francisco held a "stop-in" in which they obeyed the law and made full stops at every sign. The stunt brought traffic to a virtual halt.
Like obesity, stop sign disease seems to be a primarily North American problem. The rest of the world favours the roundabout over the four-way stop. Like them or not, when you run stop signs, you break the law. Perhaps drivers and cyclists should team up against the red devils. Stop signs serve a purpose. A 2009 study by the U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Highway Administration found that "approximately 72 per cent of fatal crashes occur at unsignalized intersections." Surely there must be a more efficient way to regulate traffic and, with the age of the self-driving car just around the corner, city planners have to stop with all the stop signs.
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