May 11, 2006

What if?

by Chris Feeney

What if the local newspaper was operated by a city alderman? That council member might use his weekly (well it used to be anyway) editorial to try to explain some action that is being pursued by the municipal government.

Since we are opening up this topic for public debate, I thought I might provide some food for thought, at least some of my ideas for supporting a recent proposal to eliminate several four-way stops in the town.

Trust me, we are not going around town willy-nilly eliminating traffic signs on a whim. There has been some thought given to this initiative that was proposed in an effort to help citizens, not hurt them, as opponents of the measure are decreeing.

Unfortunately my research on this issue has discovered no coverage of this issue by the Missouri Department of Transportation.

Still there are numerous public surveys and studies that support my position that stop signs should be used to designate traffic right-of-way at busy intersections and not as a method of speed control.

The executive summary of a study performed for the city of St. Louis made numerous points along these lines. The report entitled Stop Signs And Speed Study stated:

“A common misconception is that stop signs are a logical method by which to control speeding. In reality, however, unwarranted stop signs rarely yield the anticipated benefits and often serve only to create additional problems at the intersection in question.”

The report noted as a result of a four-month study conducted by the Department’s Traffic Division regarding using stop signs to slow down traffic that:

“Vehicular speeds reduced only in the immediate vicinity (300 feet) of unwarranted stop signs often actually increased the prevailing speed of motorists with higher approach and departing speeds as motorists often attempted to make up for lost time after having to stop.”

The study also revealed that unwarranted stop signs increased the frequency of rear-end type collisions at intersections.

It revealed that unwarranted Stop signs are often ignored by many drivers, who, rather than coming to a complete stop, execute a “rolling” stop creating a hazard and a false sense of security for other motorists and pedestrians. Thus those that anticipate full compliance and complete obedience to the posted stop signs are placed at risk by the signs that are often ignored. Basically that is saying that these stop signs in areas of limited traffic actually create more of a safety risk, by luring pedestrians into a false sense of security.

Then there is the pocketbook issue that the study also backed up by indicating what we all know, that acceleration and deceleration in the vicinity of unwarranted stop signs cause increased fuel consumption as well as added air pollution and noise pollution. Oh and did we mention the substantial inconvenience and delay to motorists.

For those of you still concerned about speeding, the study concludes by stating the best method of controlling motorists’ speed is the posting of a reasonable speed limit, followed by surveillance and strict police enforcement. The report added that motorists typically travel at speeds, which they believe to be safe, prudent and comfortable, regardless of the posted speed limit.

I never thought I would use St. Louis road statistics to argue anything for rural Missouri roads. To prove it wasn’t a fluke I checked out some other sources.

A recent paper written by the City of Troy, Michigan engineering department too concluded that multi-way stops are costly and ineffective traffic controls in most instances.

The paper by W. Martin Bretherton Jr., P.E.(M) reviewed over 70 technical papers covering all-way stops (or multi-way stops) and their success and failure as traffic control devices in residential areas. According to the researcher, this study is the most comprehensive found on multi-way stop signs.

“The research found that, overwhelmingly, multi-way stop signs do NOT control speed except under very limited conditions. The research shows that the concerns about unwarranted stop signs are well founded,” Bretherton, Jr. stated in his abstract.

Bretherton’s paper reached the same basic conclusions as the St. Louis report:

Unwarranted stop signs do not help control speed, and actually increase speed before and after the signs. They do not increase pedestrian safety, but do the opposite. And to top off the negative traffic and safety results, these same signs unnecessarily cost drivers more gasoline and more time.

This report even went as far as to say that in many instances, the removal of unwarranted stop signs actually increased compliance at legitimate stop signs. I guess motorists got used to the “California cruise”, as that slow roll through at stop signs has been playfully labeled. But when the unwarranted signs were removed, they got that out of their system. Of course that may never happen in Memphis, as traffic flow is low enough that we don’t even require a single traffic light.

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