The 4-Way Stop Courtesy

This traffic pattern was never something I had considered before. I grew up with it. We learn how to take advantage of the situation practically as soon as you learn to drive. Then, I had some friends visit from Australia who just had to know how this amazing display of courtesy actually worked. I also heard, recently, that this may be a purely Canadian phenomenon, not North American as I assumed. Maybe someone can chime in.

All streets have their own stop signs.

Well, I guess it is courteous, and is a bit of an honour system for drivers. For starters, roundabouts are very rare here; enough so that many of us are completely confused upon seeing one. Secondly, if an intersection is not large enough to have lights controlling it, there will be a stop sign controlling at least one direction of traffic. I have witnessed a couple of residential intersections with no control and experienced a moment of panic upon realizing this while half way through. We are very used to our structured traffic.

We also have the four-way stop. (Please note, three-way stops, all-way stops, and the dreaded five-way stop are all the same, just with a different number of roads connecting or different wording.) Procedure is as follows. Come to a complete stop as you would at any intersection. The car which came to a stop FIRST, is the car that is next to go. I guess it is a very polite and courteous rule. Often, this will result in the roads having alternating turns. Sometimes, the whole thing feels much to complicated when left-turners need their own turn. It always sorts itself out, though, and remains slow-paced and safe in the meantime.

Bonus rule: if two cars arrive at the intersection at the same time, the driver on the right has the right of way.  A friendly wave can let the other driver know that you are aware it’s their turn.

Bonus Question: An ambulance, a firetruck, a police car, and a mail truck all arrive at the intersection at the exact same time. Who gets to go first? Why?

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About the author

Kelly Pohorelic
Kelly is a BC girl through and through, but never lasts at home very long before her feet start itching. She has travelled repeatedly to Australia, Europe, and Mexico (and the US, but that doesn't really count). The goal is every continent, but in every place she goes, there is only more to see. She currently fills the days working too many hours with children, writing, and learning Spanish. Though, friends will always find her in a kitchen filled with new recipes from the countries she has visited.
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  • It’s an interesting concept!
    I am amazed that there are few roundabouts in your country. They are brilliant and were “invented” by the English, they make life so easier when they are only “gentlemen’ s rules” available.
    However there is not a lot of roundabouts on the English country roads, so giving way to the person who arrived first at the junction is very English, but sometimes we have to deal with pushy drivers!
    In France everything is codified so there is no guessing. Driving on the right side of the road, we have loads of signs telling us if we have to give way or not, and in the latter case we systematically apply the rule of giving way to the person coming from our right even if we have arrived before the other car. Insurance companies base themselves on this as well to assess the driver’s responsibility in event of an “incident’!
    I like our French code, it is clear and efficient!
    I would say it’s one good thing about France! :)

  • Here in the Netherlands we seem to be the kings of roundabouts. Drive straight ahead for several kilometres on a road, and you’ll get dizzy from going round every few kms.
    Being myself originally from Argentina where there’s no road courtesy at all, I am amazed that this kind of thing actually works in other countries.
    In the case you mention in the article: I guess the ambulance would have the right of way? I have no idea really, just guessing it’d be the right thing to do, since they could be carrying a wounded person?

  • Interesting article. I never thought much about driving until we visited England. Ever drive the wrong way on a round-a-bout? Everyone knows about horns.

  • It is the same rule in the United States, but here in New Zealand most people don’t know what to do in this situation because we almost always have stop signs just at one of the directions (did that make sense?) so it is clear who should stop and who can keep going. On the occasion that there is no sign, I guess someone would just wave another person through first or else just barrel on through. We don’t have the most courteous driver reputation here, unfortunately.

  • Roundabouts are SO rare here that new ones can be small town topics of discussion for years. We have been getting more, as they really do keep the traffic flowing versus our 4-ways where everyone is suppose to come to a complete stop.

    And the skill testing question: it goes against my logical reasoning, but this is what my driving instructor taught us. The postal truck gets to go first because it can, potentially, affect the greatest number of lives. Personally, I’d rather receive a late cheque than be waiting in the back of an ambulance, but, hey, laws are not always about making sense.