Navigating the perils of the four-way stop

It’s 8 a.m. and, driving my son to school down 20th Street SE, we encounter the usual “rush hour” traffic at the dreaded two-way intersection at Okanagan Avenue.

Vehicles are lined up on the north and south sides of this two-way stop – drivers waiting patiently, or impatiently, for a window to open up in the traffic on Okanagan.

For me, the challenge isn’t necessarily the intersection itself – it’s the different understanding people have of the rules of the road.

After a bit of a wait, my vehicle is finally at the stop sign. But across from me is a left-turning vehicle that’s already moved into the intersection but has now paused. The driver appears to be to waiting for me to make a move.

Technically, if both vehicles were at the stop sign, the one turning left must yield to the one driving through. But if the oncoming driver is in the process of turning left, the one going through must yield.

What I’ve entered seems like a grey area, one I see arise a fair bit. Sometimes people in my position will rocket through. Other times, after a short delay, the drivers of both vehicles will go simultaneously. While riding the adrenaline spike of a near miss, they will exchange dagger-filled stares or hand signals not related to turning, and then drive off on their merry way.

Related: Texting while walking increases risk of getting hit by car: UBC study

How I roll depends on eye contact with the oncoming driver and, sometimes, one of us waving the other through – a hastily agreed upon social contract where drivers steer through the grey to keep traffic moving.

And this is just a two-way stop. Four-way stops can be equally, if not more fun.

One of my favourite four-way stops is at 10th Street SW and 5th Ave SW, just north of the Mall at Piccadilly. What makes this one special is stop to the south which includes a right-hand turn lane. (Worse are those where there is no right hand lane, but drivers still pull alongside the vehicle at the stop sign to make the turn.)

To help me steer through the rules of the road here, I turned to friend and Salmon Arm Direct Drive driving instructor Paul Keam.

“If you’re turning right and everybody is stopped and you’re next to go, you can go right,” explained Keam. “If you’re going straight, it’s the old adage, first come, first served.”

The problem here, adds Keam, is when you have a vehicle in the oncoming lane turning left at the same time the vehicle beside you is turns right.

Related: Action wanted on dangerous Shuswap intersection

“If he’s going to turn left and the other is going to turn right, they’re going to both end up in the same lane at the same time and you don’t need that,” said Keam. “It’s just basically make eye contact with the other driver and see what he’s doing, take a look at the position of his wheels, whether they’re turned a little bit or straight, that will give you a good idea which way he is going to go as well.”

Again, Keam stressed the main rule at a four-way stop intersection is the first vehicle to arrive and stop at the intersection is the first go go. But not everyone understands that.

“I’ve noticed people will come up to the four-way stop and then they’ll just sit there and wait for everybody else to go. It’s almost like they’re scared to go with traffic there,” said Keam.

Another bit of bad driving Keam sees at a four-way stops is when drivers blow past the stop sign riding closely behind the vehicle that was stopped in front of them.

Related: Residents anxious for help with roundabouts

“So he’ll be on the bumper of the other car and he’ll scoot through that way,” said Keam. “That’s breaking the law. You must stop at a stop sign and if you’re following another vehicle through the stop sign you’ve failed to stop.”

Before our conversation ended, Keam offered me a four-way stop zinger of his own.

“At a four-way stop, a police car, an ambulance, a fire truck and a mail truck all arrive at the exact same time (going north, south, east and west), all the emergency vehicles have their lights and sirens going, the whole bit – who has the right of way?”

I guessed the ambulance. I was wrong.

“It’s the mail truck, believe it or not. The reason being, because it’s in the service of the Queen,” said Keam with a laugh and appreciation for my guess. “I learned that when I was taking my instructors course in Kelowna… that was one of the questions on our final exam. And I said, like yourself, the ambulance, because the fire is already burning, wherever the police is going has already happened, the ambulance has to get there and save somebody’s life. The mail truck, nah.

So there’s your water-cooler talk this morning.”


@SalmonArm
newsroom@saobserver.net

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