Traffic Q&A: Lack of stop signs doesn’t mean lack of thought

Question: “Why are there so many intersections in Tacoma where none of the four streets has a stop sign? It seems to be a safety problem.

I don’t know how they expect people, especially visitors or new people moving here from other places, to react.”

— Lynn W., Tacoma

Answer: To a newcomer, it can appear that the wide-open intersection is a road feature born of frugality or neglect. Putting up stop signs and traffic lights requires effort and money, and Tacoma voters last approved dedicated money for road upgrades on the day Richard Nixon won his first presidential term.

But that’s not the cause of this situation.

What we have, at these many unmarked crossroads within Tacoma, Seattle, Portland and far-off points such as Minnesota and Iowa, is a proliferation of the “uncontrolled intersection.”

They’re usually found in residential or rural areas where one low-traffic street meets another of relatively equal status, and authorities rely on sensible drivers to keep things moving along safely.

How you, the driver, are supposed to behave is to obey the standard instructions from driver’s ed: Slow down on your approach and scan the intersection for anything coming your way.

If you’re the first one there, congratulations. Right-of-way is yours. Proceed apace along life’s highway, or side street. If you arrive second, wait until the way is clear. If there’s a tie, let the motorist on the right go first, just like Revised Code of Washington 46.61.180 says.

If all works as designed, uncontrolled intersections are a modest, somewhat Zen, step toward efficient traffic flow.

No stop signs means no wasting gas to accelerate away from complete halts at totally clear intersections, as well as no tickets written by police watchful for the old “California roll-through.”

It’s certainly a smoother glide through a city grid than stopping at every block.

“Stop signs can be effective traffic control devices,” Tacoma transportation engineer Josh Diekmann wrote in an email, “but some drivers are more likely to ignore stop signs which appear unnecessary.

“Unneeded stop signs can also increase delay, noise and emissions in our neighborhoods.”

It doesn’t take long on Northwestern streets to find a reminder that this is a world where many folks — including a number of new transplants — require signage to remind them that roads have rules and that safe driving is a responsibility.

A YouTube video from Seattle shows evidence some drivers don’t yield to bicyclists every time they meet one at an uncontrolled intersection. In January, the Billings Gazette studied accidents at uncontrolled intersections across Montana and found that national guidelines suggest more stop signs might be needed.

Federal Way city traffic engineer Rick Perez identifies the uncontrolled intersection as “more of a Western thing,” and says he was surprised on a trip to Boston when he encountered stop signs and traffic lights at most every cross-street.

“I was like, ‘Man, what’s going on with that?’ ” he said.

Perez estimated about two-thirds of Federal Way’s intersections are uncontrolled, and said he couldn’t recall the last time one of them saw enough accidents to call for signage.

“Really, they haven’t been much of a big deal,” he said, “except mostly for people who come out from back East and say, ‘My God, that must be dangerous.’

“Even in professional circles, I’ve seen that question come up, and it’s just like, no, that really works just fine. State statutes spell out what to do, and they teach it in driver’s ed.”

If you’re flummoxed that other drivers aren’t always mindful of these rules and rocket through uncontrolled intersections like a Formula 1 racer, just meditate on the snobbish advice “The Great Gatsby” opens with: “remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

In this case, that means taking caution from the moment you see the crossroads you’re approaching doesn’t give anyone a stop sign or red light. Ease up on the gas and be vigilant.

Remember, the guy rolling in from the left might not be as informed a driver as you.

Derrick Nunnally: 253-597-8693