How to Stop Traffic

When I was a child I lived abroad in a country where there very different cultural attitude- particularly towards children. When I would need to cross the street to get to a park near my apartment, adult pedestrians and complete strangers would signal to cars who would come to dead stop. I would be escorted across the street safely. I have never seen this happen in the United States except maybe in some more rural communities. When we lived abroad my mom felt more comfortable letting me go out and about alone in the city than in the States.

This experience is something I have thought about while biking around the city. As a cyclist I have an opportunity to promote a neighborhood feel. I can interact with pedestrians, cyclists, drivers. I am  more physically visible which makes me more human and more relatable than a car. I try to smile and acknowledge people as much as possible and chat them up sometimes. I think the secret to Boston is that everyone wants to make a new friend- though it’s Boston so there is a certain reserve to break through. People always seem to appreciate an effort.

I have also fallen in love with the stop hand signal. I rarely see it used by cyclists but I have found it invaluable- possibly because it is used so infrequently that it surprises people. I use it at 4-way stop signs to signal to cars that I plan to stop and follow the correct protocol. (Hopefully they do too.) I also use it to signal to cyclists behind me that I am slowing or making an unexpected stop. But my favorite use is for pedestrians.

When I see a pedestrian waiting to cross the street (or already doing so) I signal that I am stopping. Frequently, the cars behind me see my signal and follow my lead. I actually succeed in stopping traffic sometimes. The best part is when the pedestrian notices and smiles and says thanks.

Stopping for pedestrians also leads to some hilarious situations. There was this great moment on North Harvard St. where a young family of 4 was trying to get across the street. I saw several cars ahead of me ignore them. So I signaled and stopped to see if I could work my magic. Several cars still blazed through the crosswalk while I just sat there waiting- so apparently not. The family laughed and thanked me for not being crazy like passing cars. We talked for a brief moment and they introduced their kids and their ages. Cars eventually stopped for them and I wished them a good afternoon and was on my way.

This is the best reason to observe traffic rules and not always be in such a hurry. I always feel good putting a little positive energy out there. And some minds may be changed in the process.

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12 Responses to “How to Stop Traffic”

  • Mark Simpson

    I also use the stop signal but also not too often. I’ve stopped for pedestrians in cross walks and told them not to mind the ‘jerks’ who didn’t stop for them :)

  • Twice today, I stopped for pedestrians at crosswalks – they had so little faith in the traffic going by, they politely waved for me to keep going. Kind of a downer. I should practice that signal — my version consists of lazily dropping my hand down. Not terribly effective!

    • My stop signal has gotten more exaggerated now, mainly because on several occasions I’ve seen what I thought was a stop signal from a cyclist that turned out to be them holding a cigarette.

  • Aaron

    Many experienced commuters will use the stop signal if they know another cyclists is behind them, I know I do. I also use my turn gestures all the time, even when there’s nobody around (habits die hard.)

    As for stopping traffic, I often do as you’ve described, only I take the lane and force the cars to stop, too.

  • yikesbikes

    Great post! I also make a point to stop for pedestrians in crosswalks. Even though it usually takes a few cars before one will stop and let the pedestrian cross, I think it helps build good will, which is important.

    What I often encounter are pedestrians that aren’t comfortable enough to assert their right to use the crosswalk and stay timidly on the sidewalk, which creates this an awkward in-between feeling that leads to confusion on all parts. That being said I think the hand signal might help cars and pedestrian understand that I am stopped for a reason.

  • Matt

    It odcurrd to me today that when you ride on the right hand side of the road, it is much easier for motorists to see left handed signals. Nt sure why I didn’t tnk of th at before, duh

  • Jim

    WTH did this blog come from?

    We Midwesterners did the hand signal thing way back when cos that’s the way we were or as I remember it.

    I am not a creepy landlord, BTW.

  • I don’t use the stop signal all that often, but I do try to arrange my schedule so that I’m never in a hurry, and I try to watch out for people crossing the street as much as possible. I’ve almost been rear-ended as many times by other people on bicycles as by cars for stopping at stop signs where people were crossing in front of me. It is really nice getting a smile and a thank you for something as simple as not running someone over – though I think it would be better if not getting run over were the given, and not the other way around :)

  • Team Sara G

    I love this! I use the stop signal all the time, and just taught another cyclist what it was (he saw me do it and then asked me at the light what it was)! Spread the stop signal love!

  • Meris

    Wow is that hand stop signal thing an american thing because I’ve never seen that in my life. Plus I don’t think we have it here. There’s the signalling forward/straight and left and right but to stop? Seems cool, I’d like to use that if I thought others knew what it meant.

    I don’t know what country it is that walked kids across the street but it sounds an idyllic place to live!

  • Di

    Before autos had turn signals and bright tail/stop lights everyone (well, almost everyone) used the following signals from the driver’s side window: Right turn: arm out, straight up at the elbow. Left turn: Arm straight out along its entire length.
    Slowing/stopping: arm out, straight down at the elbow. Pothole: arm out, down at the elbow with a circular motion. These are the same signals to be used by those on two wheels. And, yes, I use them, unless doing so would create its own hazard, such as letting go of a brake lever when urgently needed. Then I just take my left foot off the pedal and stick out my foot to let those behind know that something is going on.

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