The four-way stop is a traffic control innovation from the 1970s in the United States (I have not seen it in any of the foreign countries I have visited).

A four-way stop is an intersection of two roads, with each entry into the intersection having a stop sign at it. Supposedly, you cannot pass a written driving test without knowing the fundamentals of a four-way stop, but I think a lot of people are slipping through the cracks.

The rule as it's said in most drivers manuals is that if there are multiple people at the stop, the one who got to the intersection first goes first. In the event of a tie, the person on the right goes first. However, I've noticed that people usually negotiate a four-way stop like this:

"Hey, no one else is going! I'll go! Wait, why are they going too! Asshole! I went first!"

This is wrong.

My basic rules for a four-way stop are these:

  1. When you get to the intersection, all the cars whose grills you can see go before you.
  2. You do not officially "get" to the intersection until there are NO more cars in front of you. I think a lot of problems with four-way stops come to a loose interpretation of the when you get to the intersection rule. Just because you've been waiting in a long line of cars doesn't mean you get to break traffic laws. You're not at the intersection until you're the car in front of all the other ones.
  3. If someone attempts to violate these rules, honk, look straight at them, and shake your head in stern disapproval. They may still break the rule, but at they might realize they've actually done something wrong, or at least, that someone disapproves of.
I really think increasing four-way stop awareness is important in our society today. Mind you, I'm not a goody two-shoes when it comes to obeying traffic laws, but in the case of the four-way stop, it's one of the few driving situations where people have to behave communally, which Americans probably aren't always good at. But if you do it right, everyone goes faster.

The easiest way to approach it, according to my driving instructor, was:

  1. "First come, first serve."
  2. "Yield right-of-way to the driver on the right."

Those have always served me well.

"I go first, you go second, everyone else hesitates"

The four-way stop is a drivers' IQ test, that many drivers fail. It would seem to be a maneuver of approximately Blue-Angel caliber. But, it is really very simple, if you follow these few rules.

Case I - one car

You are the only one at the intersection. This is the simplest case. First you stop [complete stop (in or out of the crosswalk), rolling stop, 25 mph stop, etc.], then you have only five options:

1. Go.
2. Hesitate, then go.
3. Wait for 3 more cars to come along.
4. Wait for 2 more cars.
5. Wait for 1 more car.

A true Driver (with a capital "D", master of four-way stops) would choose option #3. After all, they do call this a four-way stop. Most drivers modify option #3 by adding a time limit, like 30 seconds: "Wait for 3 cars or 30 seconds, whichever comes first." This 30-second wait has degenerated into option #2, "Hesitate, then go."

Case II - 2 cars

There are a few permutations here:

1. You got there first. See below, "Complication #3, who got there first?" In this situation, just go, unless you are a disgustingly polite driver (Complication #1).

2. He or she is on your right and you're turning right. Go.

3. He or she is on your right and you're not turning right. Wait.

4. He or she is straight ahead; and he or she is going straight or turning right; and you're going straight or turning right. Go.

5. He or she is straight ahead and he or she is turning left or you're turning left. Wait.

6. He or she is on your left and he or she is turning right. Go.

7. He or she is on your left and he or she is not turning right. Wait.

Case III - 3 cars

If it's your turn, go. If not, try to imagine what can go wrong if you do go, and then go if you didn't just imagine your own death. Actually, this case is a simplification of case IV - 4 cars.

Case IV - 4 cars

There are hundreds of permutations here. But, actually, it's pretty simple. Go it it's your turn, or if you're turning right and nobody else is headed for that lane.

Complication #1 - the disgustingly polite driver

A disgustingly polite driver will wait for you even though you both know that it is his or her turn to go. I can imagine him or her stopping for a child, and waving the child into the path of a speeding semi. Such politeness confuses any driving situation. It can hopelessly muddle a four-way stop situation, unless you follow this advice: Flip him or her the appropriate salute, and go.

Complication #2 - which way will they turn?

Cases II through IV depend upon which way the other drivers are turning. Their turn signals may offer a clue:

1. Some people do not signaling
2. Some people will turn the same way that they are signaling
3. Some people will not turn the same way that they are signaling

There are six principles which will help you sort these out:

1. You can legally assume that people will turn the same way that they are signaling, or that they are not turning when they are not signaling.

2. You can legally ram them if they are lying.

3. No witness will stick around to back up your story about whether or not anybody signaled.

4. Drivers (capital "D") do not signal.

5. drivers (small "d") do not signal.

6. All other drivers signal.

Complication #3 - who got there first?

"Who" got there first, "what" got there second, "I don't know" got there third. Sorry, that was merely an allusion. In theory, a four-way stop is simple. The cars stopped in a certain order, and they go in the same order. In reality:

1. Some people don't exactly stop. So, when did they arrive at the four-way stop?

2. Some people stop one or two car-lengths behind the stop sign. When did they arrive at the four-way stop?

3. Sometimes two cars really do stop simultaneously.

4. Driver A thinks that driver B got there first, and driver B thinks that driver A got there first. This is a simplification of the next situation.

5. Driver A thinks that driver B got there first. Driver B thinks that driver C got there first. And driver C thinks that driver A got there first. From experience, I would say that this, along with various 4-car permutations, is a very common situation.

6. At least one driver has no clue. This has probably happened before he reached the four-way stop.

So, when there's doubt about who got there first, who should go first? Here's a handy rule: "I go first, you go second, everyone else hesitates." My car is the one with the dents in each door.

Complication #4 - pedestrians

Any of the above situations can be further complicated by the intrusion of any number of pedestrians. You won't see them lining up and going one at a time. They just keep walking right on through the intersection, dodging cars. While pedestrians slow down the normal clockwork of the four-way stop, they also introduce a logical puzzle to the situation. If you are about to go, and a pedestrian walks in front of you, how does that affect the order of who goes when? Do you get to go first once the pedestrian is out of your way? Should all the other cars wait for you? Or, have you lost your place and must wait for 3 more cars to go. This guideline should help: "If you have to wait for a pedestrian, you are now a time bomb waiting to go off. To minimize the loss of life, you should be allowed to go first."

Complication #5 - the four-way stop starburst maneuver

This is when all four cars go at once. All four cars stop, nearly touching, nose to fender. And, nobody can go forward. The driver who backs up loses all respect from his or her family. Besides, the next four cars have gone forward by now. So no one can back up, if he or she wanted to. The four-way stop has now achieved critical mass. The only solution is for one car to be removed, sideways, by a forklift. I'm sorry to say that I've never seen this done.

four-way stop theory

Einstein's theory of Special Relativity says, among other things, that two observers, travelling at different speeds, cannot agree on when something happened. In fact observer A may say that event X occurred before event Y, while observer B may say that event Y happened first. And both observers are right. This leads to the "four-way stop paradox."

- courtesy of Jim Loy

One very, very important thing to realise about four-way stops (or all-way stops), is that you do not always "Yield right-of-way to the driver on the right" if you're an international traveller. This is only true in countries where cars drive on the right. As international travel is always increasing, it's important to raise awareness that where cars drive on the left, the default rule is "Yield right-of-way to the driver on the left".

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