Gridlock Guy: The nuance and finesse of the four-way stop

The Atlanta City Council OK'd the measure but with some special instructions

As we take back to the roads (and many of us have), we need to take a trip back to the basics. And one of the foundational tenets of traffic law is obedience to the stop sign.

Well, those rules are simple: stop before proceeding. Point blank. But navigating multiple stop signs in an intersection warrants a layered understanding.

Four-way stops are top of mind for me, because they recently have multiplied like rabbits on my home stretch of Peachtree Road in Chamblee. Officials likely chose to enhance these intersections because of the proliferation of condo complexes (like mine) making the side streets intersecting with Peachtree more busy. Those streets back up because drivers on them wait at stop signs while Peachtree moves merrily along and without stop signs.

That arrangement worked well when most of the side streets consisted mainly of industrial businesses. But the recent residential boom increased delays on those streets, while traffic on Peachtree Road also grew. This meant exiting those streets became increasingly difficult. So the nearly stop-free stretch of Peachtree Road between Chamblee Tucker and Peachtree Boulevard is still a good spur to avoid the heavier traffic and numerous traffic lights of Peachtree Boulevard, but it now involves several four-way stops.

Georgia law is very clear on the procedures of four-way stop. Every vehicle approaching such an intersection is supposed to come to a complete stop and then advance, no matter what. If two vehicles or more are stopped at a four-way stop, the vehicle that arrived first has right of way. If two vehicles seem to arrive at the same time, then the one to the right has the (wait for it) right of way.

And no driver is to just assume their right of way, no matter what. The Georgia Driver’s Manual is very clear: “If another driver tries to take your turn, even if you have the right-of-way, let the other driver proceed. It might prevent a traffic crash.” That is a centerpiece in the philosophy of defensive driving.

But another situation that falls into a gray area is the issue of two vehicles that need to cross the intersection, but not in each other’s paths. If cars coming to stops in the opposite way just need to stop and then go forward, do they need to do that one at a time? The law doesn’t allow for anything but that.

Waiting for the opposite car to go is frustrating, especially on Peachtree Road where four-way stops are still new. There is no way the two vehicles are going to hit each other, so common sense would say both should be able to advance. But that has to be done with the assumed risk of getting a ticket. No lawman is going to say that two vehicles passing in a four-way stop intersection is legal, but the offense certainly isn’t egregious. Doing so is probably similar to choosing to drive 10 mph over the speed limit. It’s a small risk, but illegal nonetheless.

Another conundrum at the four-way stop is sorting out who actually arrived at an intersection first and who has the right of way. Much as the regulations spell out, no driver should just assume they have the right to cross an intersection. If I come to a four-way stop and there seems to be any doubt about who arrived first, I try to motion the other driver to go. Sometimes if a driver is too forgiving to another that arrived later, there can be confusion about going. But the problem of being too kind is better than the problem of too many wrecks.

The law leaves little subjectivity with four-way stops. But the wiggle room lies within how much risk to assume when choosing to cross an intersection and how much deference to show a fellow driver who may or may not have the right of way. With that said, let’s not even start talking about how to use roundabouts. At least not today.

Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on 95.5 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. He also writes a traffic blog and hosts a podcast with Smilin' Mark McKay on wsbradio.com. Contact him at Doug.Turnbull@cmg.com.