Question:

Good day

I quite often turn to you for all sorts of advice and information.

When I was taught to drive I was told that one should never turn in front of oncoming traffic, which makes sense and is (almost) always applied at traffic lights by most drivers.

But this seems to break down at 4-way stops.

At a bust 4-ways stop, it is generally difficult to know who arrived at the intersection first, so to me where there are queues of cars on all 4 sides, it makes sense to me to apply the same rules, so that two vehicles traveling in opposite directions use the intersection at the same time and that the vehicle turning right must always yield to oncoming traffic. In other words, for simplicity sake, the vehicle driving north and the vehicle driving south move first, and if one of these vehicles is turning right he/she yields to the other vehicle, then the east/west vehicles take their turn, then it reverts to the north/south vehicles again. Is this the correct approach?

In my opinion a 4-way stop is a nonsensical form of intersection for a busy road, but does make sense on quieter roads.

Can you please give some guidance or refer my question to someone who can.

Answer:

Whilst I agree that four way stops often cause confusion, more especially where some individuals do not obey the rules applicable thereto, the principle is quite simple in practice. To paraphrase the rules pertaining to these, they operate on a “first come, first served” basis. The right of way is dependent on the arrival of a particular vehicle at the stop line, regardless of the direction in which it wishes to proceed. The principle of “give way to traffic approaching from the road on the right” is a foreign principle to South African traffic law and comes from countries like the UK and Zimbabwe.

Knowing at which juncture you have arrived at the 4 way stop is in fact quite easy if you are paying attention. If one was to strictly apply the rules applicable at a 4 way stop, no more than one vehicle would legally be entitled to proceed at any given stage and other vehicles would have to await their turn to perform whatever manoeuvre they intend performing, but in practice, this almost never happens.

Instead, what happens is that traffic whose paths would not cross – i.e. when they are proceeding in opposite directions to one another – would ordinarily proceed at the same time, but in opposite directions to one another. If a vehicle is turning right, across the path of oncoming vehicles, then they would have right of way based on the “first come, first served” principle, the only problem being that the vehicle opposite them would most likely not feel the same way about the situation.

I am in full agreement that 4 way stops are confusing to most motorists at the best of times and I feel that proper roundabouts, (not mini circles) would work much better and ensure decent traffic flow at these junctions – IF people understood how they are supposed to work and what the rules thereat are.

But sadly, even fewer people than those who understand 4 way stops understand how roundabouts are supposed to work, so we come back to the ignorance of road users causing problems all over again. It is also highly unlikely that road authorities would opt for this option as roundabouts are typically more expensive to install whereas a 4 way stop simply requires four stop signs and the corresponding road markings.

For now, the only advice that I can therefore offer is the obey the “first come, first served” principle, regardless of the direction of travel that other vehicles are taking.

Best Regards,

Howard Dembovsky
National Chairman – Justice Project South Africa (NPC)

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