In a recent column about American driving habits, we discussed three very different opinions about "Stop" signs and what they require of us.
Some drivers think "Stop" means "stop and yield the right of way." Some think it means "slow down; stop only when necessary." Some think it means "slow down only when necessary; if you see no danger, keep going."
In response to that column, I received six letters from drivers who hold the third view. They think there are far too many "Stop" signs scattered about needlessly. They think they are perfectly capable of making their own judgments about where to stop, where to slow down, and where it's safe to keep right on going.
I think their position is egotistical and wrongheaded. I don't know why I should feel responsible for protecting them from the consequences of their own folly, but I do. They should have known better than to send letters containing such nonsense to a man who publishes letters from readers, but I'm going to do them a favor and withhold their names.
Ernest W. Grove of Arlington took the middle position favored by the majority. He wrote: "I am one of those drivers that Martha Haber describes as 'creeping' through intersections. This is because I always slow the car down enough for the automatic transmission to shift into low gear.
"In the old days of hand-shifting, in California at least, the police interpreted a full stop to mean shifting into low. Perhaps I am violating the law now, but I still interpret a 'Stop' sign as shifting into low."
A policeman can tell you the criteria he uses in enforcing the law, but he cannot speak for all policemen, nor do his criteria for enforcement necessarily coincide with what the law says. The average policeman did not attend law school and is not as well versed in the law as judges and lawyers are.
Be advised that the District's motor vehicle regulations define "stop" in almost the same words used by most dictionaries: "complete cessation of movement." Most jurisdictions use a similarly strict definition.
I still remember an old Army sergeant's definition of "stop." In a voice that could have been heard in the next county, he explained, "This here vehicle (pronounced vee-HICKLE) ain't stopped until its weight settles back on the rear axle. Is that clear?"
It was clear. POSTCRIPT
My remarks about driver attitudes toward traffic regulations in general have brought me an interesting response from a woman who wrote:
"I am a crossing guard on a heavily traveled road on which the speed limit is 25 mph. At 25 mph, it takes less than a minute to travel from one end of the school zone to the other. Less than one minute.
"But you would be amazed at how few cars slow down to 25. Most travel at between 30 amd 45 mph. In fact, some appear to speed up when the driver sees a child waiting to cross. I cannot believe that one minute is more important than the safety of a child.
"I try to keep traffic moving but have almost been hit, have been screamed at and threatened by impatient drivers. The other crossing guards agree that there is almost total disrespect for traffic laws in school zones. It would be interesting to see the reaction of these inconsiderate drivers if their own children or grandchildren were subjected to these conditions. If possible, please do not print my name or where I am stationed. It would only cause some of these drivers to go faster and be more abusive."
What a depressing letter.
Nevertheless, this woman may have cited a point that speeders will understand: Even if you hate children, think of the practical consequences of speeding through a school zone.
If it is 1,500 feet long, at 25 miles an hour you traverse it in 40.9 seconds. At 45 miles an hour, you go from one end to the other in 22.7 seconds.
What are you going to do with the 18.2 seconds you save by breaking the law and endangering the lives of children, crossing guards and others on the street?
How much time will you save if you are arrested for hitting a child?
Each week, 1,000 Americans are killed and 50,000 are injured in auto smashups. Do you think these things happen only to other people, and can't happen to you?
Cemeteries are crowded with the remains of people who didn't think it could happen to them.