MAP Who goes first at a four-way stop? Busy Northampton intersection may be safer, but some drivers remain hesitant

Last modified: Saturday, August 16, 2014
NORTHAMPTON — Driving on Prospect Street near his home across from Childs Park had always been a nerve-racking experience for Reed Schimmelfing, who said he had to be on alert for anxious drivers “shooting out” from side streets during small gaps in traffic.

Countless drivers performed the maneuver over the years to enter Prospect from Jackson Street and Woodlawn Avenue. So when the city installed a four-way stop at the Prospect-Jackson-Woodlawn intersection next to Childs Park about a year ago in an effort to improve safety, Schimmelfing applauded the change.

“It was clearly an improvement to do the four-way stop,” said Schimmelfing, who lives at 32 Roe Avenue.

He believes the move, however, has had an unintended consequence of solving one safety problem and introducing another because many drivers in Northampton simply do not know how to navigate a four-way stop. Drivers on Jackson and Woodlawn are so accustomed to waiting for Prospect Street to clear that they do not proceed when it’s their turn, even with encouragement from drivers properly stopped on Prospect.

“Everybody waits for somebody and nobody goes,” Schimmelfing said. “People just don’t know how to use a four-way stop.”

Leeds resident Diane Drohan agrees, even though the rules for four-way stops are simple.

“It’s so not complicated that I think some people are trying to overthink it,” said Drohan, of 13 Dimock St., who uses the intersection about 10 times a week when she is traveling to and from work. She thinks others might be too embarrassed to ask how to use the intersection.

Schimmelfing earlier this summer appealed to Ward 1 City Councilor Maureen T. Carney for better public education about the “rules of the road” when it comes to four-way stops. He believes the stop is a better alternative to the installation of a traffic light, for which the intersection qualifies.

While the stop has allowed for safer access onto Prospect from Jackson and Woodlawn, Carney said trepidation of drivers at those intersections remains a challenge.

“It’s definitely safer,” Carney said. “It’s true there can be people who are unsure what to do.”

As for rules at a four-way stop, the city does post state regulations on its website under the Transportation and Parking Commission section. Carney said she has asked the mayor to display the rules in a more prominent place on the city’s website, along with a video example. The mayor’s office said this week it is considering how best to highlight the information on its website, including possible new links.

Essentially, the rules state that the first motorist at the intersection has the right of way and can proceed after coming to a stop. If there is already another vehicle at the intersection, it has the right of way. And if two vehicles arrive at the intersection at the same time, the vehicle on the right has the right of way.

Drohan said she was initially annoyed at having to maneuver through the four-way stop, but she’s grown to appreciate its effectiveness.

“When it works, it works, but you can never anticipate what drivers at the other stop signs are going to do,” Drohan said.

Another resident, Kathy Johnston, a bus driver who lives at 186 Jackson St., said the four-way stop has made traffic flow better, but she agrees that many drivers need “refresher courses” on proper driving techniques.

“Most of us haven’t had to look at a driver’s manual for quite a few years and it can be hard to remember what you’re supposed to do,” Johnston said.

Four-ways effective

Though the intersection qualifies for the installation of traffic lights based on state Department of Transportation regulations, the city’s Transportation and Parking Commission approved a four-way stop as a four-month experiment about a year ago. The experiment worked so well that the City Council decided to make it permanent late last year, DPW Director Edward S. Huntley said.

“I think it’s working great and it makes it much safer for pedestrians crossing,” he said.

Huntley said the city is also exploring a mini-roundabout for the intersection, although such a project would take five or six years to work its way through the design and state funding process and involve land-taking. A traffic signal would take just as long to install because of funding, which is part of the reason officials moved ahead with a multi-way stop, he said.

Four-way stops are a relatively new phenomenon in Massachusetts, and have grown in popularity in recent years in many communities because they are much cheaper to install and maintain — plus they work, said John Collura, a transportation engineer and former director of the UMass Transportation Center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

“They become safer once people learn how to maneuver because you have to take turns,” Collura said. “People do learn very quickly.”

Historically, many Massachusetts communities refrained from using four-way stops and roundabouts. Collura said engineers strove to avoid implementing techniques that rely on driver behavior to make an intersection safer.

“There’s a saying that the last thing you want to do is give a Boston driver discretion, but that applies beyond Boston,” Collura said.

That thinking has changed as fiscal woes mount. Collura said four-way stops are a solid way to improve safety at an intersection after drivers figure out how to use them.

Other improvements

The city is moving ahead with several improvements this summer to make the area around the Prospect-Jackson intersection safer for pedestrians and easier for large trucks to make turns.

Construction crews are building two concrete islands in the middle of Prospect Street at the four-way stop. The islands will narrow Prospect as vehicles approach the intersection and give large trucks room to make turns, Huntley said. The islands are similar to those on King Street in front of McDonald’s and at the South-Old South intersection.

Johnston said she is hopeful the islands help to stop drivers who want to turn right from maneuvering alongside a vehicle already stopped in the intersection. She also wishes something could be done about motorists who slip through the intersection without stopping by tailing behind another car, though she admits that’s likely the case of drivers being “stupid” rather than an engineering issue.

Pedestrian improvements include installation of two new crosswalks to make it easier to access Childs Park. One crosswalk will be on Prospect at the main entrance to the park, with the other on Woodlawn at another entrance. Additionally, bicycle lanes will be added on Prospect between Jackson and Route 9 in front of Cooley Dickinson Hospital.

As for navigating a four-way stop, Huntley reminds drivers that those who arrive first at the intersection get to go first.

“It’s a courtesy is what it is,” Huntley said.

Unlike some communities that have four-way stops at many intersections, there are only three in Northampton. In addition to the Prospect-Jackson-Woodlawn intersection, the others are at the intersection of Hatfield and North Elm streets and at Florence and Burts Pit roads. There’s also a three-way stop at the intersection of Bates and North streets and Day Avenue.

Carney said she might also inquire whether a sign can be installed at the intersection to give people an idea about the rules governing four-way stops. That’s an idea Huntley said the DPW has not considered. “I just assumed most people know how to navigate a four-way stop,” he added.

Chad Cain can be reached at ccain@gazettenet.com.