Growing up in another state, I learned early to identify the bright red octagon with the white letters as meaning a car must stop. Every school child was familiar with this symbol. It had universal meaning, being known virtually around the world.
But then, I moved to Massachusetts, a place where stop signs were subject to interpretation. Casual observation made that fact crystal clear. At each intersection, a cornucopia of creativity could be seen. Each driver improvised when approaching a stop sign. Some slowed down in a pretense of complying with a perceived inconvenience and rolled through the stop sign. Others approached the intersection at breakneck speed only to slam on their brakes at the last second before gunning the accelerator – the stop sign representing nothing more than a mere blip on their quest for speed.
Some drivers hesitated, waiting to see whether a cop was in sight. A cop’s presence would determine their course of action. If the coast was clear, they would neglect to stop or, better yet, make a left turn directly in front of an opposing car that had reached the intersection first. Playing a game with the lives of others, they saw whether they could beat out that car to avoid a crash. In the presence of a cop, they would come to a complete stop and make a production out of looking left and right for oncoming traffic. Naturally, they didn’t care one whit about traffic; they were just momentarily posing as good citizens.
A few Massachusetts drivers (they could be counted on one hand) actually obeyed the traffic laws. Those people slowed down as they approached a stop sign and came to a complete stop. It was an anomaly. One had to be wary of such people. After all, this was Massachusetts; such deviant behavior could be a trick. One foot off of the curb as a pedestrian, or rolling in front of them on a bicycle, could spell a recipe for disaster. Lurking as an incognito last-minute-gas-pedal-pressing-maniac, they could lure one right into their path – ultimately plowing down anything trapped between the safety of the curbs.
As a Massachusetts cyclist who’s dealt with stop sign antics for many years, I’ve developed a habit of staring down all cars approaching a stop sign. I assume that they won’t stop. I watch drivers intently to see whether they’re talking on a cell phone, looking down at something in their car, eating a meal or grooming in the rearview mirror – all signs that an emergency stop may be required.
The precautionary move of unclipping one foot from my pedals prepares me for a rapid life-preserving maneuver, should there be an encounter with a car. Out of habit, I call out to the drivers to get their attention. It annoys them. Sometimes they appear to see me, other times I’m not so sure. One never knows in Massachusetts because drivers’ eyes can be locked in a dead stare at the road in front of them, while their minds are light-years away. But, since they’re rolling into the road, in my direction, when I don’t have a stop sign, I don’t trust them. Who’s to say that they’ll stop? What if they can’t stop? Cars often wait too long to brake at a stop sign and cause a collision by rolling into oncoming traffic.
What ever happened to anticipating situations when driving? It was one of the first things we learned in driver’s education; maybe not in Massachusetts. In times past, people planned their moves when driving. They surveyed their surroundings and estimated various scenarios in order to be ready for changes in traffic patterns. But in Massachusetts, the rule seemed to be: act first, justify one’s actions later. And there was no shortage of excuses for stop sign running. The most prevalent one was “everyone else does it.” There was safety in numbers.
Some symbols are not subjective. A stop sign is one of them. Its meaning is immutable. Reestablishing uniform responses to the stop sign would preserve order and enhance safety, although it’s not likely to happen in my lifetime. Old habits die hard.