Tiny Stop Signs Are a Huge Mistake

I have a good friend with a practiced reply when people say they don’t like politics: “How do you feel about stop signs?” His rapier point is that every intersection of humanity may at some point require a political intervention. I wonder how he feels about the conditional stop signs that have sprouted up in crosswalks across America.

I think the signs themselves are a patently bad idea. Driving can be strenuous and stressful, so we’ve worked very hard to make certain reactions automatic. Green means go, red means stop. Eight sides also means stop. Except now, all of a sudden, we’re asking drivers to attend to conditional statements that include what we’ve taught ourselves to be a reflex response.

If there’s a pedestrian in view, you must stop until that pedestrian has crossed the street, or risk a traffic violation fine of up to $250. That statement may be true, but it belongs on the driver exam or in the DMV offices; not on the roadway.

It may add some protection for the person attempting to cross the street, but it also may not provide that protection. No pedestrian should rely on an if/then statement of conditional causality. It will always be safer to look both ways for oncoming traffic.

It’s no coincidence that these signs began sprouting from the asphalt over the last half decade. If you spent too much time alone, you could convince yourself that the signs are a distillation of the well-intentioned overreach that happens whenever liberal politicians are given power for too long a stretch.

It surely makes sense to somebody somewhere to install these signs or to provide the funding that makes the signs and their installation nearly irresistible. But that doesn’t mean the urge shouldn’t be resisted. It should. Here’s why.

Have you ever wondered why flight attendants are required to demonstrate how to work the safety belts on the airplane, even if the plane is nearly empty and every single passenger has flown many times before? Studies have shown that people in an emergency can forget that the airline safety belts work differently than the ones they use in cars. Yes, people can actually get stuck in an airplane seat because they can’t remember to “lift up on the buckle to release.” That recent reminder aims to override the reflex response.

When people are panicked, they’re not always who they think they are. A different set of responses take over when survival is at stake. So what’s wrong with being reminded about the law that requires motorists to yield to pedestrians? Isn’t that similar to the flight attendant rehearsing emergency procedures?

Similar, but not the same. I’d have no gripe with the signs if they didn’t include a miniature stop sign in its argumentative statement. The four letters would suffice to convey the information in a way that works in non-urgent situations. The iconic red octagon must retain its visceral urgency to remain effective.

When we see that shape and color, we stop first and ask questions later. That’s how it should be. Now we’re asking every driver to evaluate context and conditions every time they see that red shape. Is it part of a discursive message or is it standing alone without explanatory context? Should I stop or should I ask myself whether I should stop?

Drivers will reprogram their reactions at different paces, inviting new and unnecessary havoc.

I find myself tapping my brakes on Willamette Street when there are no pedestrians anywhere around. Somebody following close behind me might not expect my seemingly random braking. Worse than that, a driver might accidentally blow through a conventional stop sign, because there are no pedestrians in sight, when crossing traffic has the right of way.

Pedestrians certainly need more protection. A dozen pedestrians die every day in traffic accidents, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. A pedestrian injury occurs approximately every eight minutes. This little change in roadway adornment was designed to save lives, but it could end up making things worse.

The solution may be stop signs, but it’s not maybe stop signs.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) blogs at www.dksez.com.