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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883


Let’s not play games

When you enter an intersection with four-way stop signs, you haven’t entered a contest, although it often seems so.  These safety stops are not designed to be tests of will, patience, aggression, or timidity — they are there to stop and control traffic at busy intersections.  Often, however, they are places of confusion, uncertainty and anger.

Usually, the familiar, non-ambiguous two-way stop is sufficient to establish right-of-way, and safe traffic control.  When traffic density or accident frequency reaches a certain threshold, however, four-way stops are implemented to reduce collisions.  We “enjoy” quite a few of these intersections around here (not to be confused with the unmarked or uncontrolled intersections, which are also plentiful), and many drivers don’t know how to behave when there.

Here’s what the Washington Driver Guide (like 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 I’ll admit, it’s not always that simple.

For starters, if one vehicle stops, then second and third vehicles arrive and stop in rapid succession, everyone usually just sits there — they haven’t given proper attention to which driver actually arrived first.  This situation then degenerates into several stutter-footed stops-and-goes by involved drivers until someone finally floors it out of frustration 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 one is 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 I’ll admit there’s some gray area here — the various states conveniently leave out the situation that often occurs at busy four-way stops:  four cars arrive and stop at the same time.  No one got there first, and everyone is on someone’s right.  To avoid consternation, I usually gas it immediately in these cases, taking advantage of others’ hesitation, as they remained stopped.  This works great, unless another driver uses the same method, then we revert to the multiple, continuous gas and brake stabs, until one of us has the nerve to stay on the gas.

The four-way stop usually works well for stopping the traffic — getting it going again seems to be the problem.  I’ve been trapped behind drivers who let several cars go before proceeding — I would say that they are not doing it right.  Recently, I sat three cars back in a four-way stop lineup and when the first car in my line went, the second car (the one in front of me) went on through the intersection too — they are not doing it right either.  One must combine the rules of the road with common sense to properly handle these stops — whatever set of rules these two drivers used was the wrong set, and common sense was absent.

 As typical with all driving, you have to be thinking about what you are doing to negotiate intersections with four-way stops.  The next time you approach one, try to concentrate on who got there first.

Readers may contact Bill Love via e-mail at