The Difference Between Real Stop Signs & Decorative Red Octagons

By John Carr, NMA Massachusetts Activist

I smiled as I watched the car pass the stop sign without slowing down.

The other driver probably recognized the sign was not necessary without thinking much about it. I, who had just driven through the same intersection without stopping, knew the sign was not merely unnecessary but illegal. I was pleased that it wasn’t unduly interfering with traffic.

The all-way stop sign is a modern American obsession. Drive in England and you’ll rarely see a stop sign. If you drove in mid-20th century America, you saw a lot fewer.

Forty years ago, cities in Massachusetts couldn’t post stop signs without a permit from the state Department of Public Works. The state sign manual listed conditions justifying two-way stop signs. The section on four-way stop signs simply noted that they were not used here.

In the 1980s, cities won the right to post signs without a permit and forests of stop signs started popping up.

You’re probably familiar with the demands for traffic calming stop signs. If politicians don’t install them they get blamed for anything bad that happens. If they do install stop signs they can blame increased accidents on bad drivers and relocated traffic jams are somebody else’s problem.

This is known as a negative externality: the people who make a deal (complaining residents and politicians) do not suffer the adverse effects on third parties (drivers and residents of nearby streets).

But there’s a catch. The law didn’t really say cities could post stop signs just anywhere. The law said cities could post signs consistent with the state Manual On Uniform Traffic Control Devices.

The national MUTCD says stop signs aren’t supposed to be used for speed control, aren’t supposed to be used at intersections between two minor streets, and it restricts all-way stop signs to especially busy intersections.

It arguably leaves room for evasion. Certainly it is evaded, both in letter and in spirit.

The Massachusetts MUTCD is clear. The purpose of stop signs is to prevent angle collisions between vehicles. Every stop sign installed for speed control is illegal. Every stop sign installed for traffic calming is illegal. Every all-way stop at a low volume intersection is illegal. And so on.

Back to the intersection of Woodland Road and Central Street in Newton, Massachusetts. A committee approved the stop signs even though they did not meet state standards. They had no authority to do so. The intersection would need to be twice as busy as it is now before the city would have the legal option to consider all-way stop signs.

This is not an isolated incident but the usual pattern.

Since I started keeping track ten years ago the city has installed 14 multiway stop signs in violation of state safety standards, one that meets safety standards but does not meet technical legal standards, and none with proper legal justification. Most or all of the older signs (about 40 more) don’t meet standards.

So what does it mean when a sign is illegal?

This is not the first time Newton has broken the law and the state supreme court answered this question over 60 years ago. When the city of Newton installs a traffic control device contrary to Massachusetts law drivers can’t be charged with disobeying it. Commonwealth v. Sharpe, 322 Mass. 441 (1948).

I brought this to the attention of city officials. The result was a memo from the law department to aldermen asking them not to approve new illegal stop signs. Nobody dares take down the old ones. Next time you get pulled over for speeding you might try telling the officer sure you were going 90, but you had stopped accelerating.

Fortunately most drivers can tell the difference between real stop signs and decorative red octagons. We’ve been lied to so many times by signs that we learned to judge for ourselves. We recognize that some stop signs ought to be obeyed, in spirit if not in letter, some stop signs ought not to be obeyed, and some intersections deserve a stop even if there is no sign saying so.

What is important is that we agree with each other on the rules, not that we agree with the government on the rules.

You might ask, if we can figure things out for ourselves what’s the purpose of signs? That is a good question. I’ll have more to say about roadway deregulation in the future.

In the meantime, I suggest reading about the “naked streets” concept. (Make sure you turn on safe search before hitting Google, because it’s not what you might think.)

The naked streets concept is popular among anti-car groups because it gives pedestrians greater right of way than they have under traditional law. Look past the car haters’ spin where they gloat about the right to jump in front of trucks (really!).

It’s about an attitude towards regulation of road use.

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