When Stop Signs Make Us Less Safe

August 28, 2012
flashing stop sign

Demanding your attention in St. Anthony Village, Minn. (Photos by Bob Ingrassia)

I came across a new type of stop sign during my daily commute a few weeks ago. Exciting, I know, but bear with me on this. It gets good, I promise.

The update on your classic STOP sign features red lights around the edge. There’s a motion detector in there somewhere, too. As you approach the intersection, the lights start flashing. You can’t miss them.

And that’s the point. This is a stop sign that demands your attention. This stop sign is special, standing out over all others.

I can see why residents in this neighborhood want to call attention to the stop signs at this T-bone intersection. It’s a three-way stop just off Silver Lake Road in St. Anthony Village that forces drivers on a side street to pull out onto a busier, hilly road. Drivers on the side street can’t see the cross traffic very well, and when they pull out, they take a leap of faith that any passing motorists will obey the stop sign.

So I’d say this intersection is definitely safer with the the flashing stop signs.

But what about every other intersection with regular, non-flashing signs? I’d argue those intersections are now less safe.

How can that be? Well, there are now a bunch of drivers out there who are getting accustomed to flashing stop signs. For those motorists, any sign that doesn’t flash is now slightly less noticeable.

The effect may be imperceptible at this point. But what happens when other neighborhoods start pushing for those fancy flashing stop signs? Imagine the day when half the stop signs you encounter blink at you as you approach — shouting “Look at me!” — and the other half just stand there like boring wallflowers.

My contention is that drivers will grow to expect stop signs to blink at us. They’ll stop seeing those that don’t. I can hear the excuse now: “I never saw that stop sign, Officer. It wasn’t flashing!”

And then we’ll find ourselves needing to upgrade all stop signs just to get back to a level playing field. And when all the signs flash, we’re back to where we started … with all signs being equal. When everyone is special, no one is special.

Plus, the day will come when a stop sign that is supposed to flash malfunctions. Then we’ll face the dangerous and expensive problem of “broken stop signs.”

So let’s halt this stop-sign arms race now, before things get totally out of hand. Stop signs aren’t broken. Don’t fix them.

NOTE: I’ve encountered flashing stop signs elsewhere … occasionally at a rural intersection where a state highway crosses a county road, or sometimes on a temporary basis when an existing intersection gets a stop sign for the first time. But this St. Anthony Village sign is neither of those situations. This is an intersection controlled by stop signs for years … and the flashing signs don’t appear to be temporary in this case.