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Stopping STOP signs

A recent National Post front-page story on initiatives in various municipalities across Canada to remove ‘excessive’ STOP signs brought to mind the photographed urbanscapes by Robin Collyer in which all the ‘text of commerce’ has been digitally removed. Collyer’s images radiate calmness and serenity, and the blank colored sign shapes are dazzling in their overlapping interplay. But aesthetic concerns are not driving the STOP sign removal initiatives and if they proceed, it is doubtful that calmness and serenity, at least in the short term will be the result.

Charlottetown, PEI, the first mentioned city, is planning to remove 16 STOP signs that do not regulate volumes of traffic meeting national guidelines. Similar initiatives in Winnipeg (MB); Nelson (BC); Cranston (Rhode Island) are also aimed at removing excessive and, in Cranston’s case, not officially approved signs.
The nub of the problem that these initiatives are attempting to address is the danger created by too many drivers ignoring the (allegedly) too many unnecessary STOP signs. On the other hand, environmentalists in Uxbridge, ON, for example, have supported STOP sign removal on the grounds that “stopping 20 times use up a liter of gas.” In short, the ‘signs-aren’t-working-and-so-they-are-dangerous’ proponents and the “signs-are-working-and-it’s-polluting” proponents are seeking the same end.

What the stop sign is for?

According to US federal guidelines, the purpose of a STOP sign is to provide a safe and orderly operation of an intersection that is not possible otherwise. Traffic volumes, the nature of the intersection—whether conjunction of main and minor roads, for example and its crash history are the main factors considered in determining whether a STOP sign is justified.
Injury lawyer discusses removing stop signs
Explanations of STOP sign functioning take pains to point out that STOP signs are ineffective speed controllers, citing studies showing that “the speed of vehicles in the immediate area of the STOP sign is reduced, but the speed between intersections increases as a result of motorists making up for a lost time.” These explanations also reinforce the ‘signs-aren’t-working-and-so-they-are-dangerous’ argument.
STOP sign scofflaw-ism appears to be on the rise. In a May 2010 essay in Slate magazine, Tom Vanderbilt explored the possible reasons: it is a “minor indicator, among many, of a larger societal shift: a decline of civility and reciprocity, a lesser willingness to follow social rules… [in a] society marked by increased self-regard (and hence less regard for others), …[with] neither the inclination nor the situational awareness required to accommodate others, whether by signaling one’s intentions, stopping for pedestrians in a crosswalk, or heeding the familiar red octagon.”

Removing the sign

However effective it may be in the long run, removing stop signs is a tricky business. Replacing a long-existing STOP sign with a roundabout is perhaps the safest option. Drivers have to pay extra attention to execute their trip around the circle. Replacing it with other signs—YIELD or TAKE TURNS—may provide sufficient notice to enable habituated drivers to make the adjustment.
Removing a STOP sign altogether becomes a test of Hans Monderman’s theory that traffic efficiency and safety is improved by encouraging each person to negotiate their movement directly with others.
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