Update: published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on 2007-08-29
I love guessing games. They’re a fun exercise for the mind. Guessing games can be a welcome diversion too, such as: guess why this lane isn’t moving, or guess how many trailers they’ll run before the movie starts, or guess what the umpire has in his eye. One of my favorite guessing games, though, occurs at a 4-way stop and it’s called, "Guess What I’m Thinking". This game can be played with two drivers, but the more drivers participating, the more fun you’ll have.
On the surface the game seems simple enough: upon arriving at an intersection, you must wait your turn before you can continue on your way. But, you’ll quickly learn the thrill lies in the uncertainty of what the other driver is thinking.
Was he here first? Is she paying attention? If someone turns right do I lose my turn?
Many years ago, my mundane high school driver’s ed instructor - who, by day, was a mundane history teacher - took a moment to discuss 4-way stops. He casually covered this topic during the time it took him to swap out the "Sissys Without Seatbelts" movie in the projector for the delightful classic, "Highway Bloody Highway".
First, he stated the obvious, "When you come to a 4-way stop you must stop and wait for the vehicles already at the intersection to go before you may proceed."
Why did I even bring a notebook?
Then came a subtle twist, "If two vehicles arrive simultaneously," he said. "Then the vehicle to the right has the right of way."
With a flip of the switch the movie started and that was the end of the discussion. The grainy crash scenes flickered on the screen and I didn’t give 4-way stops another thought. I was blissfully unaware of how challenging this exercise would really be.
My first few times at a 4-way stop went just as expected. I’d pull up. Wave on the driver to my right. Then proceed merrily through the intersection. The birds were chirping and the flowers were in full bloom.
Then one day, I arrived at a 4-way the same time as the driver to my left. Finally, it was my turn to go first. I began to enter the intersection and, lo and behold, so did the other driver. I stopped. Then he stopped.
"What’s he doing?" I asked myself.
We sat there for a moment just staring at each other. Maybe he realized his mistake and was waiting for me to continue. So I did. But, he too began advancing, only this time he’s honking his horn. I was befuddled, so again I stopped.
Did my driver’s ed teacher misinform us? Is the order in which you proceed through an intersection not determined by your car’s position, but rather by who has the greatest physical impairment? I wondered this because this guy was waving his hand as he passed by and he was clearly missing some fingers.
Little did I know, but I was fully entrenched in the "guessing" game and I failed miserably. Luckily, I survived without having to visit the body shop.
Since that lively encounter, I have honed my skills at "guessing" what the other driver is thinking. Let’s see if you can recognize some of these driver types too:
The short stop. No, I’m not referring to a position player in baseball, but rather, it’s a method used by many drivers to make it appear as though they were at the intersection first. This is accomplished by braking well short of the "stop" line painted across the road. This driver is thinking, "I’m stopped. It may be thirty feet short of the line, but I’m stopped. Therefore, I go first."
The right-away. For some reason, drivers making a right hand turn like to think they’re exempt from the rules. Usually, they won’t even acknowledge the other vehicles at the intersection. They pull up and without stopping, turn right. Most of the time this method is harmless, but if they pull out in front of a vehicle already in the intersection and trying to go the same way they are, then everyone has to wait until the "right-away" maneuver is complete. This driver is thinking, "Why are all these people just sitting here?"
The cutter. The cutter appears when vehicles are queued in all four directions. Rather than wait his turn, the cutter begins advancing after one vehicle is through the intersection. This advancement, initially a crawl, is intended to intimidate the other drivers that are supposed to go. If the other drivers hesitate, the cutter will charge through the intersection. This driver is thinking, "Can’t you people drive!"
The rider. This driver has too many other things going on than to be bothered with driving, they’re just along for the ride. Their vehicle is merely a vessel on auto-pilot, which allows them to accomplish other tasks such as: talking on the phone, reading a book, applying make up, organizing their briefcase, or eating a triple-stack burger. This type of driver is the most unpredictable. When they arrive at the intersection they simply stop and wait until they remember they’re in a vehicle, then suddenly go. This driver is thinking, "Did I leave the cat outside again?"
The no-look. Beware of the driver that refuses to look in your direction. Like a baby that’s fooled by a game of peek-a-boo, this driver truly believes that if they can’t see you, you don’t exist. Consequently, they believe it is always their turn. This driver really knows you’re there, but is thinking, "I’ll just tell the officer that the other vehicle just came from out of nowhere."
Once you’re able to recognize these driver-types, then you too can succeed at this guessing game and save yourself thousands of dollars in repair costs. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to play guess what my wife is thinking.