Another day, another octagon

A four way stop appeared at an intersection I use regularly, Lexington and Beech in Belmont, Massachusetts.

I wondered, “should I stop?”

That I had to ask shows how confrontational the relationship between government and drivers is. Most stop signs are posted for nuisance value.

The town engineer says there’s a reason for these stop signs. In 2011 there were five accidents potentially preventable by a four way stop. Which just happens to be the legal minimum to justify considering stop signs as a safety measure.

I asked MassDOT to confirm the safety problem. They could not. State records only show three accident reports. Police responded to two more accidents for which no reports were filed. Unreported accidents are not unusual. Most collisions cause only minor dents and scratches and are not legally reportable.

Stop sign studies are supposed to use reported accidents. Scratches don’t count. Nor do “near misses,” which were also said to justify these stop signs. A “near miss”, like “an accident waiting to happen”, is the opposite of an accident.

This intersection averages less than two angle collisions per year, with only one of the past 15 years having more than three. Any intersection can have a bad year. The statistical term is, accident rates are “overdispersed.” They clump more than normal random events. This intersection does not have a history of safety problems.

A poorly placed crosswalk is also supposed to justify the stop signs. In Massachusetts it is illegal to post stop signs because of pedestrian safety concerns. (Ironically, the stop signs made me stop using the crosswalk because there is usually a line of slow-moving cars blocking it.)

All way stops are to manage vehicle right of way at intersections where both streets carry about the same amount of traffic. Here the main street carries about ten times as much traffic.

Whether or not they technically just barely meet warrants (the legal minimums), the stop signs are not necessary.

Just ask drivers. A few drivers stop, a few drive through at full speed, and the rest slow down to varying degrees. That’s what happens when you post unwarranted stop signs. Not a rhetorical statement; it’s in the literature.

Drivers don’t know whether there were legally three or five accidents five years ago. They know one road is the major road and the other is a lightly-used side street.

What should have happened is southbound traffic should have been warned, “slow down a little approaching this intersection to make sure cross traffic sees you.”

If only there were a sign that meant that you should slow down on this section of road.

Obviously such signs used to exist, but they have been co-opted to mean “people around here complain about speeders.” This intersection is a fine example. The legal speed limit is 30, but Belmont illegally posted most of Lexington Street at 20 mph. There’s nothing to distinguish the 200 feet where you might want to go only 5 mph over the posted limit from the rest where 10 or even 15 over is fine. They don’t make a sign for “this sign is less of a joke than the others.”

Cry “wolf!” often enough and drivers give up and choose for themselves how fast to go.

Should you stop for this new stop sign?

Choose for yourself.

The opinions expressed in this post belong to the author and do not necessarily represent those of the National Motorists Association or the NMA Foundation. This content is for informational purposes and is not intended as legal advice. No representations are made regarding the accuracy of this post or the included links.

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