New county report urges municipalities to
just say no to more stop signs

By Ken Leiser Of The St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Monday, May 28, 2001

    Stop signs are overrated as a way to control speeders on neighborhood streets. In fact, there’s evidence that too many signs actually could make some people drive faster.

    At least that’s what St. Louis County's traffic planners found in a four–month study of “unwarranted stop signs” –– the results of which were released to county elected leaders last week.

    The report, titled “ ‘Stop’ Signs and Speed,” should give county bureaucrats and politicians the cover they need to say no to well–meaning residents who want a new stop sign on their corner.

    And they need to say no. Just look at the city of St. Louis, where stop signs sprout like dandelions because aldermen have the power to order them posted if enough constituents ask for one.

    Trouble is, it’s pothole politics at its worst. There’s very little quality control. Superfluous stop signs breed contempt among the motoring public––many of whom don’t come to a full stop, anyway.

    That lulls the rest of us into a false sense of security because we expect people to stop when they come to a red, octagonal sign.

    The county study said as much.

    “We receive 150 to 200 requests every year for stop signs,” said Pat Palmer, the county's chief traffic engineer. “We spend a lot of time on the phone and a lot of time writing responses to people telling them why they don’t work.”

    Many people think a well–placed stop sign will curb speeding or reduce accidents on their residential street.

    When the county gets a request for a stop sign, its traffic planners go out into the neighborhood and conduct an investigation––paying attention to the accident history, the physical features of the intersection and traffic levels.

    Then they make a recommendation. A new stop sign or yield sign requires an ordinance, Palmer said.

    He couldn’t say how many stop signs there are on county streets and highways.

    The county report found that the prevailing speeds on streets with new stop signs actually went up, not down, after the signs went in.

    Take the municipality of Northwoods.

    Not too long ago, Northwoods installed midblock stop signs on Florian Drive between Lucas and Hunt Road and Nelson Drive, and on Kenwood Drive between Begg and Edgewood boulevards.

    County traffic officials conducted a speed study before and after the signs went in. What they found was that prevailing traffic speeds on Kenwood went up 3 to 5 mph after the stop signs were installed. On Florian, the speeds went up 2 to 3 mph.

    At many of the intersections studied for the report, vehicles were found traveling 20 mph just 100 feet before or after the stop sign.

    “That tells you that a lot of people aren't stopping," Palmer said. "You aren't getting complete stops at intersections.”

    The report also found that stop signs increase the potential for rear-end accidents at an intersection.

    And there's mounting evidence that an overabundance of stop signs is bad for the air. Frequent stops increase the emissions spewing from your car's tailpipe.

    None of this is to suggest that stop signs are a bad idea, authors of the study say.

    “Stop signs are great for assigning right of way,” Palmer said in an interview. “That is their No. 1 function – to assign right of way at an intersection.”

    They’re particularly useful at high–volume intersections and places where there might be limited visibility.

    But to control speed, the report recommends posting a “reasonable speed limit” instead, and following that with police surveillance and “strict ... enforcement.”

    If the speed limits aren’t reasonable, people might ignore them, too.

    As the traffic engineers concluded, “Motorists typically travel at speeds which they believe to be safe, prudent and comfortable, regardless of the posted speed limit.”

TO CONTACT KEN LEISER\ kleiser@post–\ 314-340-8119\ 900 N. Tucker Blvd.\ St. Louis, Mo. 63101-1099

Published in Metro on Monday, May 28, 2001.