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It’s not a free-for-all

When negotiating a four-way stop, driver behavior is not supposed to be a free-for-all.  These intersections are not designed to be games of will, patience, aggression, or timidity either — but they often are.  Such vehicular “crosshairs” may even become points of indecision or anger.

Usually, a non-ambiguous two-way signed stoppage is sufficient to establish right-of-way and safe traffic control.  But when traffic volume or accident frequency reaches a certain threshold, posted four-way stops are implemented to reduce collisions.  We have quite a few of these intersections around here and many drivers don’t know how to behave while encountering them.

Here’s what the Washington Driver Guide (mirroring most states) has to say about the topic:  “At a four-way stop the driver reaching the intersection first, goes first (after coming to a complete stop).  If more than one vehicle arrives at the same time, the vehicle on the right goes first.”  That sounds really easy, but it’s not always that simple.

If one vehicle stops and second, third or fourth vehicles arrive and stop in rapid succession, everyone usually just sits there because they haven’t noticed which driver actually arrived first.  Next, one or more drivers initiate hand signals waving others to proceed.  This situation often degenerates into several stutter-footed stops-and-goes by the drivers involved until someone frustratingly “floors it” to clear the intersection.

The key to avoiding this game of “Who’s the most polite?” is to pay close attention to the arrival order of the vehicles present, and then depart in that order.  Of course that is hard to do if you are talking on the phone or eating lunch. 

If more than one vehicle arrives at the same time, the driver of the vehicle on the left should yield to the driver of the vehicle on the right, according to the Driver Guide.  Again, there’s some gray area here — the manual conveniently leaves out the situation that often occurs at busy four-way stops:  four cars arrive and stop at nearly the same time.  No one got there first and everyone is on someone’s right.  To avoid consternation and enhance efficiency for all, I try to gas it immediately in these cases to take advantage of others’ hesitation as they remain motionless.  This works great unless another driver uses the same method — then we revert to the stuttering gas/brake stabs until one of us has the nerve to stay on the gas.

Four-way stops usually work well for stopping the traffic — getting it going again is what creates problems.  Last week, I sat behind a vehicle whose driver let three cars go before proceeding.  I would say that they were not doing it right.  Later, as I sat three cars back in another four-way stop lineup, the first car in my line went and the second car (the one in front of me) went on through the intersection along with it.   That driver was not doing it right either.  One must combine the rules of the road with common sense to properly handle four-way stops — whatever set of rules these two drivers used was the wrong set, and common sense was absent.

As is the case with all driving, you have to be thinking about what you are doing to negotiate these intersections properly. The next time you approach a four-way stop, try to concentrate on who got there first and depart accordingly.

Readers may contact Bill Love via e-mail at

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