4/7/2021OPINION: Proposed Rules Would Put Stops Signs Anywhere, Everywhere
Commentary on the upcoming changes to Federal Highway Administration rules that allow placement of stop signs just about anywhere. Part 2 of a series
By John F. Carr
The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) is proposing changes to stop sign rules in the document that regulates these devices, known as the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD). Based on a report which found all way stop signs are almost never justified, FHWA will create more of them. (View the introduction to this series.)
The rules reflect a naive view of the life of a city traffic engineer. Instead of serving the public too many of them are looking to please their bosses. My town hired a consultant who told them to ignore the MUTCD when it said the stop signs residents wanted weren't needed. If they aren't outright breaking the law they are looking to find any loophole to exploit.
So it's a big problem that the rules allow all-way stop signs "where pedestrian and/or bicycle movements justify the installation of all-way stop control." There is no further guidance. For cars there are specific numbers, but even one pedestrian is enough. Every intersection on every road where pedestrians or bicycles are allowed, or might be found, can have all-way stop signs.
Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?
The accident threshold for posting all-way stop signs for safety concerns has been lowered from five per year to two per year, which will at least double the number of places they can be posted. Want more?
The way the new rules are worded, stop signs are expected to be posted. Under the old rules stop or yield signs should be posted when needed. Now rules call for engineers to review every uncontrolled intersection and add signs unless it can be proved to be safe without them. My shared driveway is technically a private road subject to the new MUTCD. The fork in the driveway is an intersection. I'm supposed to hire an engineer to tell me my driveway doesn't need stop signs. If I can find one with good insurance. You get sued for not having stop signs, not for having them where they don't belong.
All-way stop signs can also be posted anywhere there is alleged to be deficient sight distance even if there is no safety problem. Here is how it works in practice. City councilors in Waltham, Massachusetts, started ordering stop signs posted where they didn't belong. City engineers were told to find excuses to keep them. They claimed 93 percent of intersections where councilors wanted signs had inadequate sight distance. The councilors were not geniuses. The report was a fraud. I checked the measurements. Sight distance was adequate from where a driver would look for traffic before pulling out. Evidently the city engineers did something like measuring from where the second car back would be, which obviously makes it harder to see. The writers of the rule didn't think to prohibit creative mismeasurement. Great loophole anywhere outside of a corn field in winter.
Under the old rules stop signs were used at busy intersections to equalize traffic flow, but only if an engineer measured long delays on side streets. Under the new rules there is no need to observe traffic operations. If there are 500 vehicles per hour you can drop four stop signs on an intersection that has neither accidents nor traffic jams. Why would you do that? Because the neighbors asked for them.
There is some good news. The new rules flatly prohibit using stop and yield signs for speed control. Think anybody will pay attention?
To reword an old saying: Never attribute to malice what can be explained by mistake. Maybe the people who wrote the stop sign rules made a mistake by assuming good faith on the part of local officials. I'll review the speed limit changes next. For those there is no other explanation but malice.
Read and comment on the proposed rule, or view the first part of this series.