Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways

It’s a Stop Sign. It’s not Rocket Science.

Since returning from my weekend rally road trip back from the desert Southwest, I have become even more annoyed with the awful driving habits of Kansas Citians.

I know It is probably just as bad in other cities, but there seems to be this crazy thing here involving Stop signs. For some reason, the people in this community have no clue what to do when they get to one, and if two cars arrive at the same time, look out. The reason I bring this up is actually related to design issues, and how they apply to everyday activities. That Stop sign you see every day, was designed. That intersection it is at, and the rules that apply to it, were also designed.

Like many things in life we take for granted, there is some design history behind it. And like all things designed, it was created to solve a problem, and it was executed with a set of rules or principles that help with the final outcome of the design work.

A little history about the sign, before I talk about how the drivers of Kansas City are clueless when it comes to Stop sign behavior.

The first Stop signs originated around 1915 in Michigan. They were a simple 24 inch sign with easy to read black type on a white background. The high contrast sign was easy to read during the day as well as at night, which was critical since road signs at the time were non reflective. In 1922 the American Association of State Highway Officials met to standardize the Stop sign on a national level. The committee decided on using a unique 8 sided octagon for the shape, because it was easily identifiable for drivers even if they were approaching the sign from the back. The Octagonal shape was also chosen to differentiate it from all other road signs, which is why the Stop sign is the only octagonal sign in use today. In 1935 AASHO published the first Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways (MUTCD) detailing the stop sign’s specifications which are still in use today. The major difference between then and now, are reflective surfaces that make the signs easier to read at night, and there is a specific font designed for roads signs that is easier to read at greater distances.

When you look at the sign itself it seems rather ordinary, but if you think about it the design is very specific to the action it directs. The color is Red, for caution or warning. The shape is unique, and easily remembered. Even if you do not read the language, the shape and the color translate and are recognized. The font used on the sign is easily read at distances and in all weather conditions. And the reflective white paint that is used jumps off the surface at night making the sign more visible. All of these things are conscious decisions that someone designed to make the sign more effective.

Now lets talk about Kansas City, and the confusion that drivers seem to have with Stop signs.

There seems to be this problem that when two cars get to a Stop sign at about the same time, neither driver knows who gets to go first. So they sit pondering, trying to figure it out until either one eventually goes, or one driver motions the other to go first. If it is a four-way stop look out. The collective brain power needed to harness a four-way stop is insane. If you are a few cars back you might as well pull over and take a nap, because it can take forever before the drivers in front of you figure out what to do.

The other problem with the Stop sign situation around here I mentioned earlier. The “hand wave”, or the motioning someone to go first.

There is this really weird thing that KC drivers do. They motion the other driver to go first even if they obviously get to the sign after the first driver. It is this “I’m scared to death, why am I even driving?” kind of thing where people are being overly cautious. The only problem is, most of the time, the driver giving the wave is only watching the car directly across from them. So when they motion you forward, they are possibly motioning you to pull out into oncoming cross traffic. I have seen two gnarly wrecks in the last year that happened because of this. The hand wave has got to stop. It’s dangerous, and it’s stupid. The rules of stopping just aren’t that hard, and if you are so scared you are going to be in a wreck at  the hands of another driver, maybe you should take the bus.

It’s really pretty simple. Stop signs work like this.

When you get to a stop sign, come to a stop, count to three, then step on the gas if traffic is clear.

If two cars get to a stop sign at the same time, the car to your right always has the right of way. No need to motion someone to go first. The car to your right gets to go before you.

The rule above applies to 4 way stops as well.

If two cars get to a stop sign at the same time, A person making a Left hand turn, has to yield to a driver going straight

If two cars get to a stop sign at the same time, A person making a right hand turn, has the right of way over left hand turning vehicles at the stop.

These rules are the same in all 50 states in the good old USA, and most modern countries in the world. They were designed to make driving safer and easier. I just wish more people would follow the rules above, and leave the hand waving at home.