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Stop Signs Explained

Seemingly the most intuitive and obvious of all road signs, the stop sign wasn’t always as common or straightforward.

Hold It Right There, Buster

Early 1900s traffic - Flying Dutchman on YouTube.com
Early 1900s traffic - Flying Dutchman on YouTube.com

Controlling the flow of traffic via road signage is so prevalent and seems so logical that it’s hard to imagine things were any other way. But at the advent of motoring, roads, even busy urban ones, were almost totally uncontrolled and carried a chaotic mixture of traffic that included horse drawn carriages, pedestrians and cyclists, locomotives and trolley cars, in addition to automobiles, which at the time didn’t require any sort of licensing to operate. Today, it’s easy to take for granted the amount of thinking road signage does for the modern American motorist. They dictate a safe speed. When to slow down. Where you can turn. And when to stop.

The Stop Sign Origin Story

Detroit, MI traffic - loc.gov
Detroit, MI traffic - loc.gov

It may come as a surprise, considering how simple the concept is, that someone had to come up with the idea of a stop sign. Way back in 1900, a well-to-do New Englander named William Phelps Eno wrote an article for Rider and Driver magazine entitled “Reforming Our Street Traffic Urgently Needed” which called to the implementation of a stop sign to control traffic.

Despite Eno’s suggestion, the first stop sign still wouldn’t arrive until 1915 when the first such sign was erected in Detroit, Michigan. Just a year prior, in 1914, the first electric traffic light had been instituted in Cleveland, Ohio, and the first center line going back to 1911, again in Michigan.

Early stop sign - loc.gov
Early stop sign - loc.gov

The first stop sign was a two-foot by two-foot white square with black lettering. Throughout this early period, they lacked any standardization or uniformity. But, in 1924 the American Association of Highway Officials (AASHO) standardized the stop sign’s color to yellow with black lettering and a display height of two to three feet from the ground.

The octagonal shape wouldn’t arrive until 1935. Instrumental in this process was the Mississippi Valley Association of State Highway Departments which had been pushing for greater standardization. Their engineers developed a peculiar theory about traffic signage that suggested that the more sides a sign had, the greater the danger indicated. A round sign, with infinite sides, indicated the most danger and was used for railroad crossings. An octagonal sign, used for stop signs, was the next level down. Diamond signs were reserved for caution warnings. And finally, square signs would be used for informational purposes such as highway designations.

Despite this somewhat shaky theory, the octagonal design was also preferred because, unlike other signs, drivers passing in the opposite direction would know that oncoming or cross traffic had a stop sign.

The Modern Stop Sign

Standard stop sign
Standard stop sign

The octagonal stop sign was adopted in 1935 in the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways (MUTCD). This would receive several updates over the next few years, adding reflectors and the use of red or black lettering. The modern stop sign was codified in 1954. The MUTCD now called for all stop signs to be octagonal in shape, 30-inches by 30-inches, feature a red background with white lettering and a two-inch white boarder, and be displayed at a height of seven feet in urban areas and at least five feet in rural areas.

How a Stop Sign Works

4-way stop
4-way stop

Yes, it is so simple that it threatens to defy the need to explain it, but I myself have been in two accidents where I was hit by a motorist who failed to properly navigate a stop sign. So, not so easy after all.

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Stop signs control the flow of traffic by requiring a vehicle to come to a complete stop before proceeding. A “rolling stop” where the wheels slow down but do not stop will get you pulled over by traffic police. It’s important to allow yourself the requisite amount of space and time to stop at a stop sign. Though various factors are at play, including speed, road conditions, and tire traction, it’s recommended that you begin braking at no later than 150 feet from a stop sign.

Some stop signs are positioned in places where they are not easily seen by approaching traffic. In this case there usually is signage indicating a stop is ahead. These can be accompanied by street/pavement signage and even rumble strips to alert motorists. A stop sign is usually accompanied by a white line on the pavement indicating where one should stop. You should also be mindful to not stop in a designated crosswalk.

Stop ahead sign
Stop ahead sign

Before proceeding from a stop sign, drivers need to watch out for pedestrians, cyclists, and any traffic that is uncontrolled or otherwise has the right-of-way.

Stop signs that affect two-way traffic or one-way traffic are usually simple to navigate, but the traditional four-way stop requires drivers to remember two simple rules. The first is, the first vehicle to stop gets the right-of-way and should proceed first through the intersection. The next rule is, if two or more vehicles stop at the same time, the vehicle on the right gets the right-of-way. Most of the time this works out fine, but it’s always important to be watchful of other drivers and drive defensively.

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Chris Kaiser

Chris’ greatest passions include topiary, spelunking, and pushing aging compact cars well past 200,000 miles on cross-country road trips. His taste in cars runs from the classic and esoteric to the deeply practical with an abiding affection for VW Things, old Studebakers, and all things hybrid-crossover.

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