God Damn Stop Signs

I loathe stop signs.

On the path to my favorite greasy spoon there are at least 4 of the ubiquitous, red, hexagonal sheets of metal. As I was ambling home the other day I watched someone break the law at every sign on the route. At the first a guy lurched into the middle of the intersection instead of waiting at his line for me to walk across the street, preventing anyone else from getting by. Why he did this, I have no idea. But it was scary. I wasn't sure if he saw me or if he was going to go right through me.

A little further down the road, there are a few three-way stops that no one even pauses at. People slow down a bit, then roll right on by. They're less stop signs, and more "slow down" signs.

Ignoring the signs is considered totally acceptable behavior. Almost everyone does it, and no one I know feels bad about it. This usually gets brought up as a knock against cyclists and bikes, but it's not. It's a social problem that we all participate in. There are laws that we feel don't apply to us at all times, because no one is there to see us commit the act. And it doesn't matter what form of transportation you take, no one wants to stop at stop signs. People in cars, on bikes, skateboards—everyone hates them.

In a car, stop signs can be downright confusing. Who stopped first? When all four people come to a stop at the exact same time, who goes first? If you're going straight and I'm turning left, but the timing has worked out so that both parallel lanes are going at the same time, do I wait out in the intersection for you to go by, or do I sit at the sign hoping nobody takes my turn? There's too much social calculus required.

On a bike, things get worse. When I'm on my bike and I stop, I often get waved through by cars. I cringe when this happens, I just want to take my turn. It feels awkward. If there's a glare over your window, I can't tell what you're doing. Or if there are multiple cars, do you speak for all of them?

Roundabouts are a wonderful alternative to stop signs. Where stop signs add unnecessary complexity, roundabouts are all about simplicity. Traffic only moves one direction, you're not required to stop if no one is there, and the physical barrier in the middle of the road means you have to slow down to take the turn.

In Europe, they have roundabouts everywhere. Sometimes they can get confusing, like when they have 7 exits off of the same roundabout, but as I've pointed out, so can stop signs. If you get confused by the roundabout, you just go around again. Roundabouts effectively slow down people on the road, but only require a full stop when there's traffic, which is exactly how people treat stop signs now.

Some might think roundabouts are weird, but they're more in line with how we actually behave. There are lots of laws we break because they don't fit our behavior patterns. Going five over the speed-limit, sipping on beer from a red cup in the park, walking when the little hand is flashing. All innocuous illegal activities, but still illegal.

In the future, we need to design our laws and cities to help promote better outcomes that fit in with our perceptions and behaviors, otherwise we undermine the authority of all laws. Why should bigger laws matter when we don't care about the small, easy ones?

We can start by ripping out those god damned stop signs.