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Break the law, or no?

Is It Ever Okay to Run a Stop Sign?

Ask yourself: Is it ever okay to run a stop sign?

I think most people will say “no.” Most countries claim to operate under the “rule of law,” and we are socially conditioned from childhood to obey traffic laws. Traffic laws are in place for a good reason: to limit the amount of damage caused by us driving.

Here’s one of my favorite questions:

You’re driving alone out in the desert. You can see for a 10 mile radius all around you. The ground is flat and featureless in all directions. You’re on a two-lane highway and you can see far ahead that you’re coming up to a four-way intersection with stop signs all around. There is no traffic coming from either side, or opposing straight ahead, for miles. It’s cloudless mid-day, so the sun is not in your vision and there are no shadows anywhere. What do you do?

I’ve asked this question in person to several people. Usually the answers are along the lines of, “I’d slow down, but not come to a complete stop,” sort of like what is called a California stop. One surprising answer I got was “absolutely,” and when I inquired further, the response was, “what if there is something you don’t see.” Even given the conditions that everything is completely clear all around, the respondent still doubted their own ability to safely assess the situation. They trusted the stop sign, and the people who placed it there, more than their own perception. Even given the certain scenario of perfect knowledge of my question, they chose to obey the stop sign. Perhaps they thought it was a trick question and I was going to spring a “gotcha!” of some sort on them. Or maybe they just had the wealth of experience to know that human perception, even in a seemingly perfect knowledge environment, is always limited, and chose to defer to that wisdom.

I like this question because most of us feel similarly that if there was no stop sign there, almost none of us would even slow down going through that four-way intersection out in the middle of nowhere. But the presence of a stop sign changes the whole equation. That is the power of conditioning.

But this is only approaching the question from one perspective. Let’s assume the same scenario, but you also have imminent danger approaching you quickly from behind, like a lava flow, or a flash flood, or a tsunami. Is it okay to run the stop sign? I think most people would say yes. In these cases, if you slow down or even stop for the stop sign, you are risking personal injury and death.

This means the answer to the original question is “yes,” it is in fact okay to run a stop sign. I know what you’re probably thinking, that such exceptional conditions aren’t typically considered relevant for such questions, and perhaps I’m just being pedantic. But if you think outrunning certain dangers beats the stop sign law, then you agree that sometimes it’s okay to run a stop sign.

What is the purpose of a stop sign in the first place? In most cases, stop signs serve as a way to resolve conflict over an intersection. Either vehicles, pedestrians, or some other phenomenon like a bicycle or animal crossing all warrant the placement of stop signs. A car and any one of these other entities cannot safely occupy the same intersection at the same time. So we place a stop sign, and along with some training about the rules of intersections, the intersection occupancy conflicts are logically resolved.

By extension, if there is no other entity, then there is no conflict of occupancy; and therefore, the stop sign has no value in this case.

Let’s think of it another way. Imagine the original scenario, except you’re not even there. So we just have a stop sign out in the desert with no one around for miles. Does the stop sign have any value in this scenario? No, of course not. It doesn’t even have value when there is one car nearby. It only has value when there are at least two entities contending for the intersection.

Another variation I like is the T intersection. Do you feel safer running the stop sign if there’s only one side road leading up to it?

Okay, now how about if there are no side roads at all, and just a stop sign in the middle of nowhere on the side of the road? I feel like it’d be interesting to drive out into the desert and put a stop sign on the side of the road just to observe behavior. Of course I would need to do it in a safe way. This is a terrible idea, for many reasons by the way, so don’t do it.

Here’s another thought experiment. It may be in the next few decades that we still have intersections, and we still have cars, but we don’t have any more stop signs. Our cars could all be automated, and the cars decide who goes first at the intersection. The cars may just communicate with each other. No stop signs needed. In fact, humans don’t even need to be present when these cars are deciding autonomously.

So we can even further resolve the purpose of stop signs as only being relevant when we have at least two entities contending for an intersection, and at least one of them has a human in control as the decision maker.

If you’ve stayed with me until now, you probably think I am advocating for running stop signs. However, that is certainly not the case. But why?

The reasons are simply that humans are creatures of habit, and we have limited perception. Most drivers will rarely encounter a scenario like the one from above. Usually our information about an intersection is far more limited, and the risk involved is much higher. Getting into the habit of running or even just rolling through stop signs can lead to a false sense of safety. It is not unusual for humans to drive beyond their capabilities to fully understand the driving situation.

So, is it ever okay to run a stop sign? I would say, logically, if there is no intersection conflict, then yes. Alas, we are creatures of habit with imperfect perception, and do not generally adapt quickly to sudden changes in our environment. And because of that, we should usually not be running stop signs, except when the conditions (imminent potential death, for example) warrant it.

Or, if you have perfect knowledge of the setting in an ideal fantasy environment. Then by all means, yes, for crying out loud, run the stop sign!

As a parting thought, originally my idea for this article was to have a title of “Stop Sign Worshipers Will Be the First To Go,” and I was going to explain how when the robot overlords arrive, and they have to figure out who to cull in order to ease the burden of overpopulation, they would use simple assessments like this one to filter out those who had the capacity to think logically. I bet this article would have been more entertaining if written from this lighthearted perspective.

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Musings of an Armchair Layman

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Justin Mahoney

Justin Mahoney

Musings of an Armchair Layman

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