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How Do 4-Way Stops Really Work?

Marfa's busiest intersection: the 4-way stop on Highland and San Antonio. (Carlos Morales / Marfa Public Radio)

As we approach peak summer festival season, one Marfa resident is out to learn the real rules of the busiest intersection in town  -- the 4-way stop on San Antonio and Highland. And they're not as simple as you might think.

Whether in flip flops or on wheels, Ben Shurley makes his way through the 4-way stop on a daily basis. And he knows there's a set of rules for how people are supposed to move through it. But he consistently notices how drivers tend to take matters into their own hands when they roll into the intersection. Often, it gets chaotic.

So he asked West Texas Wonders straight up: "How do 4-way stops work?"

Marfa's Chief of Police Estevan Marquez says he sees a lot of violations at the 4-way stop everyday. 

Within 5 minutes of parking at the old Howard Petroleum gas station parking lot that sits at the intersection, we watch someone blow straight through one of the stop signs without slowing down. 

"If I didn’t have someone with me, you know, that would be a ticket right now," he says.

For visitors who've never been to Marfa before, it may come as a surprise that you need to watch your driving. It’s easy to get lazy behind the wheel here -- the speed limit rarely climbs above 40 miles per hour, and we don’t have much in the way of complicated traffic signage. There isn’t even a proper red, yellow and green traffic light. 

Most of the violations Chief Marquez sees aren't that severe. He says the number one offense is cars rolling over the white solid line ahead of the stop. He's not so worried about that. Mostly, he just wants people be safe and aware of the rules.

But what exactly are the rules? At first glance, they seem simple enough. Ben Shurley knows the basics.

"In a car, basically ,if you get there first, you get to go first," he explains. "Or, if you get there at the same time, whoever’s on the right goes first."

What he really wants to know is: "How come the system breaks down so easily?"

That's question we’re investigating in this story. 

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So we climb into Ben's 2004 Toyota Highlander to experience the 4-way stop with fresh eyes. After circling the intersection for a half hour, something becomes clear -- drivers are confused about the right of way.

That may be because the basic rule we keep in mind -- where, if multiple cars arrive at the stop at the same time, the driver on the right is supposed to go first -- doesn’t necessarily apply to every single situation. If 4 cars arrive at once, everyone has someone on their right. If 2 opposing cars cars arrive at the same time, neither has a car on the right. Right?

To address this dilemma, Chris Weber, a local engineer with TxDOT, refers us to Texas Transportation Code.  It’s a 2,837 page document, and it's not very user friendly. "I would rather read War and Peace and Moby Dick 5 times, if was going to read it beginning to end," he offers.

So instead, he summarizes --

Say 2 opposing cars arrive at the the 4-way stop at the same time. If one is going straight and the is other turning, straight has the right of way. Because through traffic trumps turning traffic.

If the 2 cars are turning in opposite directions, both can proceed safely at the same time. If they're both turning towards the same destination, the one turning right has the right of way.

These rules also apply if 4 cars arrive at the stop at the same time.

If you need a shortcut, Weber says to remember that the rules are all written for efficiency. In these more confusing situations, if you have a shorter, more direct distance to travel across the intersection than anyone else, you’re probably first in line.

There's another scenario that regularly causes havoc at the main intersection in Marfa -- the shoulder lane. 

When drivers who are turning right approach the 4-way stop, they often form a separate turning lane on what's actually the shoulder of the road, effectively creating a rogue lane.

According to Chris Weber and Chief Marquez, this needs to stop.

Marquez has seen it cause an accident. "Unfortunately we had a vehicle that got kind of squashed by an 18-wheeler just right here. Across the street from the city hall."

It happened when a truck in the real lane and a car the rogue lane tried to turn right at the same time -- and they collided.

Marquez says it’s a hard thing to enforce, because drivers in Marfa have been doing it forever.  So he’s picking his battles. For now, as far as he’s concerned -- as long as you come to a complete stop behind the white line, use your turn signal, look out for pedestrians, and try not to start that shoulder turning lane thing -- you’ll be fine.

And if you see Ben Shurley at the 4-way stop, don’t wave him through if it’s not his turn. Because he’ll be following the rules.

"I will probably have more self-discipline at the 4-way stop, and be more annoyed at people with the hand signals," he says. "But I’m not going to get out and pull someone over and ask them, 'do you not know the rules of the 4-way stop? Let me tell you. My name’s Ben Shurley.'"

What do you want to know about West Texas? Ask here.

Sally Beauvais is a reporter at Marfa Public Radio.
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