04 September 2008

Coming to a four-way stop

Traffic is one of those things that I ponder endlessly in my sojourns around my hometown and beyond. Often, I admit my question takes the form of an exasperated, “Who taught this joker how to drive?”

Behind this is simply my wish that everyone had been taught to drive by an anxious (but not too anxious!) parent or friend, and taught to honor and respect not only the rules of the road but also the laws of physics. I always hope that someone has tried to make the point that your sphere of influence shifts when you get behind that wheel. Because their frontal lobes are not yet fully developed, sixteen-year-olds may not be able to fully wrap their minds around the implications of this. But one would hope that each new driver has at least once been reminded that they are maneuvering a one-ton hunk of metal by turning that key and pressing down those pedals.

I find I am in a unique position to observe and record findings on traffic behavior in my community because I use various modes of transportation extensively. I drive (more than I should, but try to minimize trips and distances). I bike, usually distances of up to four miles from home. I walk, and I take the bus for trips downtown, to meet friends, and to take my child to school. My experiences as a pedestrian, a rider, a cyclist, and a driver keep me compassionate toward everyone involved in the transportation equation. Except when I'm hollering at some driver who refuses to stop at a flashing-lights crosswalk.

Lately, though, I feel I've seen more than my share of scofflaws. What peeves me most is anyone who acts as if they are entitled to a free pass for any behavior. There's the pedestrian trying to avoid a half-block walk to the crosswalk or stoplight who darts across the four-lane road. There's the woman in her XL-sized SUV who barely stops at the four-way stop (because she has too much momentum? because the stop sign comes sooner than she expects and the conversation with her friend on her cell is so much more interesting?). There's the bicyclist I saw zip through a four-way stop without even checking whether anyone was coming from any direction (and plenty of people had been, all of them politely taking their turns at the intersection). Yesterday I watched a cyclist sans helmet or clue refuse to come to a full stop at a light and ride in circles in the middle of the intersection while everyone else was trying to get through on their green light.

I was approaching a four-way stop on my bike the other day and a man yelled at me, “That's a stop sign!” before I'd even had a chance to stop, which I had indeed been planning on doing. Apparently, he'd presumed that as a Boulder bicyclist I was not going to stop at the intersection.

This is only going to work if we all follow the rules, I realized. We will have to give others the benefit of the doubt and presume they will follow the rules, too. Right now, half the population seem like seven-year-olds in a snit: “He's not going to follow the rules, so I won't, either!”

What concerns me is how many people don't know the rules, or need to be reminded of the rules. I see evidence of this every day, including our city bus driver who just last week did not stop for a pedestrian waiting to cross at a crosswalk. I asked him, as innocently as I could muster, “Are all bus drivers supposed to stop there, at those crosswalks?” He spent the next few minutes sputtering a response, but it made him think about it!

Always yield the right of way. The person on your right has the right of way. If there's any question about who should go first, follow the first rule of the road, which is yielding the right of way. Remember, right does not mean privilege; it means the opposite of left.

There seems to be a presumption that once we have driver's licenses, we will never forget any of what we had to learn to earn them. This is an awfully optimistic projection, in my eyes. I think it's several years before I have to get my license renewed, and I don't think I will need to pass any test other than to read an eye chart (with and without glasses). So if I'm harboring my own misconceptions about traffic laws, getting my license renewed isn't likely to motivate me to correct them.

When I was studying to take the driving and written tests before I got my driver's license, the teaching phrase of the day was: “The right of way is always yielded, never taken.” I got the part about letting the person on your right go first, but the “never taken” part has always stopped me in my tracks. After years of pondering this, I have concluded that it's among the most confusing pieces of advice I've ever heard. It means you should never presume that you have the right of way in any given situation. But I haven't found that cliche to be all that helpful when I've rolled up to a four-way stop at the exact moment as someone else.

This is why I am writing about traffic. I'd like to clear up myths and misperceptions. I look forward to researching, observing, and discussing not only traffic laws but also the rules of the road, the laws of physics, the transportation planning issues, and the morals and ethics that determine the traffic patterns that endlessly fascinate and madden us as we move ourselves from one location to another every day.

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