Thursday, March 11, 2010

Neither rank nor station at the four-way stop

They say government is broken. They say cultural wars are dividing America. They say American is too angry to be governed.

They also say government closest to home works best. Maybe we should re-examine the basics. What IS working?

Editorial Notebook
After You

New York Times, March 10, 2010

Recently, I have been considering the four-way stop. It is, I think, the most successful unit of government in the State of California. It may be the perfect model of participatory democracy, the ideal fusion of “first come, first served” and the golden rule. There are four-way stops elsewhere in the country. But they are ubiquitous in California, and they bring out a civility — let me call it a surprising civility — in drivers here in a state where so much has recently gone so wrong.

What a four-way stop expresses is the equality of the drivers who meet there. It doesn’t matter what you drive. For it to work, no deference is required, no self-denial. Precedence is all that matters, like a water right in Wyoming. Except that at a four-way stop on the streets of Rancho Cucamonga everyone gets to take a turn being first.

There are moments when two cars — even four — arrive almost simultaneously. At times like that, I find myself lengthening my own braking, easing into the stop in order to give an unambiguous signal to the other driver, as if to say, “After you.” Is this because I’m from the East where four-way stops are not so common? Or do most California drivers do this, too? I don’t know. What I do know is that I almost never see two cars lurching into the middle of the intersection as if both were determined to assert their right of way.

I find myself strangely reassured each time I pass through a four-way stop. A social contract is renewed, and I pull away feeling better about my fellow humans, which some days, believe me, can take some doing. We arrive as strangers and leave as strangers. But somewhere between stopping and going, we must acknowledge each other. California is full of drivers everywhere acknowledging each other by winks and less-friendly gestures, by glances in the mirrors, as they catapult down the freeways. But at a four-way stop, there is an almost Junior League politeness about it.

And when the stoplights go out at the big intersections, as they do sometimes, everyone reverts to the etiquette of the four-way stop as if to a bastion of civilization. But there are limits to this power. We can only gauge precedence within a certain distance and among a very small number of cars. Too many, and self-policing soon begins to break down. But when we come one by one to the quadrille at the four-way corner, we are who we are at our best, bowing, nodding, and moving on.


Ken said...

Lovely, simply lovely.

But of course if you're a bicyclist (like me) you're apt to blow right through all sorts of traffic controls, four-way stops, two-way stops, and, when nobody's looking, maybe a red light at a deserted intersection.

If fact, as I've both read and learned through long practice, automobile drivers know that bicyclists customarily run stop signs are befuddled when we stop to give right of way. At least that's the way it is here in laid-back Austin, Texas.

Nance said...

This is wonderful! I, too, am reassured by four-way stops. Similar etiquette is shown in San Diego, where the DOT considers the U-Turn an acceptable engineering element and makes frequent use of them; they require a little more flexibility at left turn time, but folks seem to manage well enough. What does worry me is the frequent use of the bike lane as a right turn lane for cars. SD denizens can blow all their four-way-stop credit on one bungled bike-lane turn. Still, we look for signs of civility wherever we can find them.

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