Four-Way Stops (Simplified)
Copyright 1996, Jim Loy
The four-way stop is a drivers’ IQ test, that many drivers fail. It
would seem to be a maneuver of approximately Blue-Angel caliber. But, it
is really very simple, if you follow these few rules.
Case I – one car
You are the only one at the intersection. This is the simplest case.
First you stop [complete stop (in or out of the cross-walk), rolling
stop, 25 mph stop, etc.], then you have only five options:
2. Hesitate, then go.
3. Wait for 3 more cars to come along.
4. Wait for 2 more cars.
5. Wait for 1 more car.
A true Driver (with a capital “D”, master of four-way stops) would
choose option #3. After all, they do call this a four-way stop. Most
drivers modify option #3 by adding a time limit, like 30 seconds: “Wait
for 3 cars or 30 seconds, whichever comes first.” This 30-second wait
has degenerated into option #2, “Hesitate, then go.”
Case II – 2 cars
There are a few permutations here:
1. You got there first. See below, “Complication #3, who got there
first?” In this situation, just go, unless you are a disgustingly polite
driver (Complication #1).
2. He or she is on your right and you’re turning right. Go.
3. He or she is on your right and you’re not turning right. Wait.
4. He or she is straight ahead; and he or she is going straight or
turning right; and you’re going straight or turning right. Go.
5. He or she is straight ahead and he or she is turning left or you’re
turning left. Wait.
6. He or she is on your left and he or she is turning right. Go.
7. He or she is on your left and he or she is not turning right. Wait.
Case III – 3 cars
If it’s your turn, go. If not, try to imagine what can go wrong if you
do go, and then go if you didn’t just imagine your own death. Actually,
this case is a simplification of case IV – 4 cars.
Case IV – 4 cars
There are hundreds of permutations here. But, actually, it’s pretty
simple. Go it it’s your turn, or if you’re turning right and nobody else
is headed for that lane.
Complication #1 – the disgustingly polite driver
A disgustingly polite driver will wait for you even though you both know
that it is his or her turn to go. I can imagine him or her stopping for
a child, and waving the child into the path of a speeding semi. Such
politeness confuses any driving situation. It can hopelessly muddle a
four-way stop situation, unless you follow this advice: Flip him or her
the appropriate salute, and go.
Complication #2 – which way will they turn?
Cases II through IV depend upon which way the other drivers are turning.
Their turn signals may offer a clue:
1. Some people do not signaling
2. Some people will turn the same way that they are signaling
3. Some people will not turn the same way that they are signaling
There are six principles which will help you sort these out:
1. You can legally assume that people will turn the same way that they
are signaling, or that they are not turning when they are not signaling.
2. You can legally ram them if they are lying.
3. No witness will stick around to back up your story about whether or
not anybody signaled.
4. Drivers (capital “D”) do not signal.
5. drivers (small “d”) do not signal.
6. All other drivers signal.
Complication #3 – who got there first?
“Who” got there first, “what” got there second, “I don’t know” got there
third. Sorry, that was merely an allusion. In theory, a four-way stop is
simple. The cars stopped in a certain order, and they go in the same
order. In reality:
1. Some people don’t exactly stop. So, when did they arrive at the
2. Some people stop one or two car-lengths behind the stop sign. When
did they arrive at the four-way stop?
3. Sometimes two cars really do stop simultaneously.
4. Driver A thinks that driver B got there first, and driver B thinks
that driver A got there first. This is a simplification of the next
5. Driver A thinks that driver B got there first. Driver B thinks that
driver C got there first. And driver C thinks that driver A got there
first. From experience, I would say that this, along with various 4-car
permutations, is a very common situation.
6. At least one driver has no clue. This has probably happened before he
reached the four-way stop.
So, when there’s doubt about who got there first, who should go first?
Here’s a handy rule: “I go first, you go second, everyone else
hesitates.” My car is the one with the dents in each door.
Complication #4 – pedestrians
Any of the above situations can be further complicated by the intrusion
of any number of pedestrians. You won’t see them lining up and going one
at a time. They just keep walking right on through the intersection,
dodging cars. While pedestrians slow down the normal clockwork of the
four-way stop, they also introduce a logical puzzle to the situation. If
you are about to go, and a pedestrian walks in front of you, how does
that affect the order of who goes when? Do you get to go first once the
pedestrian is out of your way? Should all the other cars wait for you?
Or, have you lost your place and must wait for 3 more cars to go. This
guideline should help: “If you have to wait for a pedestrian, you are
now a time-bomb waiting to go off. To minimize the loss of life, you
should be allowed to go first.”
Complication #5 – the four-way stop starburst maneuver
This is when all four cars go at once. All four cars stop, nearly
touching, nose to fender. And, nobody can go forward. The driver who
backs up loses all respect from his or her family. Besides, the next
four cars have gone forward by now. So no one can back up, if he or she
wanted to. The four-way stop has now achieved critical mass. The only
solution is for one car to be removed, sideways, by a fork-lift. I’m
sorry to say that I’ve never seen this done. I understand this is very
popular in Europe, at all kinds of intersections.
four-way stop theory
Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity says, among other things, that
two observers, travelling at different speeds, cannot agree on when
something happened. In fact observer A may say that event X occurred
before event Y, while observer B may say that event Y happened first.
And both observers are right. This leads to the “four-way stop paradox.”
A theory that seems to have even more to say about four-way stops is
I have finally figured out what is wrong with the four-way stop concept.
It is not that the four-way stop is a drivers’ IQ test that is too
difficult for all of those drivers who have not yet mastered the green
light concept. Instead, it is that the four-way stop is an IQ test that
these drivers are encouraged to flunk over and over again, forever.
I recently was stopped behind a person who stopped at the four-way stop,
let six cars go ahead of her, and then went. Also recently, I was the
third car to a four-way stop, and the first car wouldn’t go (waiting for
a fourth?); we out-waited him, and he eventually went.
I received email saying that not all states have four-way stops. That
sounded like heaven, until I read further about the four-way yield! I
hope they give out drivers’ manuals at the border.
I recently almost saw a three way accident at a four-way stop. A car was
the first of three cars at the intersection. The driver hesitated, and
then went. And all three cars nearly collided. The hesitation sent the
wrong signal; it said “go ahead” to the other drivers. A more forceful
approach would probably have been less dangerous. Clearly any driver who
goes (whether he/she actually has the right of way or not) must be
prepared to stop. But so many drivers seem to be trying to divine the
other drivers’ thoughts, when they should just go in the order in which
I should also write about “Uncontrolled Intersections (Simplified).”
These are intersections with no stop or yield signs. There are several
amusing ramifications (ways in which cars can ram into each other), such
as “I got there first,” or “I’m on your right, buddy,” or “I’m in the
through street,” or “I’m King of the Road,” or “Honking is better than
I recently saw a new trick at a four-way stop. A driver held up his hand
(in traffic cop fashion) to encourage me to stop. I was going about 2
mph, and was coming to a stop, which should have been obvious to him. So
his gesture seemed stupid to me. But that might actually work.
I also saw a U-turn in a four-way stop intersection (read that again),
with two cars waiting. Stupidity = Creativity!
It seems that many drivers are trying to make eye contact with each of
the other drivers. This is a sort of validation: “Yes, we all
acknowledge that you exist, and therefore you can go now.” That is why I
wear dark glasses.
I recently encountered the ultimate complication (twice in one week):
four way stops + cell phones. This may be the new rule: If the driver
who gets there before you has a phone to his ear, go (or don’t). Hey, a
bad day driving is better than TV.
AHPBBFM posting rules: http://tinyurl.com/ak694
AHPBBFM links repository: http://tinyurl.com/a9qsx