SHERIDAN — Most adults quickly become accustomed to driving a vehicle. Because of the repetition, muscle memory positions their hands on the steering wheel or checks their blind spots during lane changes. Green means go; red means stop; yellow means slow down.
But what if there are no street signs at an intersection? These are called uncontrolled intersections and are fairly common across the country in rural or lower-traffic areas.
In Sheridan, uncontrolled intersections are all around town in residential neighborhoods, with most occurring near Sheridan Junior High School and south of the Sheridan County Courthouse.
The lack of a stop or yield sign in a four-way intersection can initially cause confusion. Is this a mistake? Who has the right of way? Won’t this cause more accidents?
Actually, uncontrolled intersections are deliberate and have been used for decades across the country. In low-traffic areas, the thinking goes, having an uncontrolled intersection is safer. If drivers don’t respect a stop or yield sign, they will brake a bit then accelerate through the intersection, making it more dangerous.
“We’re all traffic engineers in our heads,” Lane Thompson, city of Sheridan director of public works, said. “It doesn’t matter who you are. You drive a car, you know traffic. So what happens is if you put a stop sign up where it’s not required, after one or two times of going through it, people disregard it. It just is human nature. We disregard them. We don’t respect them, we don’t stop for them.”
Drivers are more likely to roll through an intersection with an unnecessary stop or yield sign.
“All of a sudden, that’s not a 5 mile per hour accident, it’s a 30 mile per hour accident,” Thompson said.
Most uncontrolled intersections in Sheridan have been this way dating back to at least the 1970s, Thompson said. He grew up in Sheridan in the 1980s and remembers some of the same uncontrolled intersection locations.
Beginning a little less than a century ago, the federal government performed nationwide studies that led to the Manual for Uniform Traffic Control Devices, which oversees street signs and road markings. Individual states then adopted most or all of the MUTCD, sometimes adjusting it to fit the respective state.
The first MUTCD came out in 1935. In the 1970s, several changes occurred, including highway signs and markings on two-lane roads. The most recent MUTCD was released in 2009.
Section 2B.04 of the MUTCD states that yield or stop signs should be considered at a minor four-way intersection if the average daily traffic volume exceeds more than 2,000; if the ability to see oncoming traffic is hindered; or if three traffic accidents related to failure to yield occur within a two-year period or five accidents within a three-year period.
About once per year, Sheridan residents ask about putting up a stop sign or more closely examining a certain intersection, Thompson said. The public works office then looks at Wyoming Department of Transportation traffic data in the area for accidents or other issues. Most of the time, the data reveals no recent accidents and a low vehicle count.
“We don’t have enough traffic in those areas to justify them to where people would respect and obey them all the time,” Thompson said.
Uncontrolled intersections generally reduce speeds in neighborhoods because drivers slow down on their approach. The right of way at an uncontrolled intersection goes as follows: whichever vehicle arrived first should go through first. If two vehicles arrive at the same time, the vehicle to the right goes first. Essentially, motorists should drive defensively and act as though there is a yield sign when they approach an uncontrolled intersection.
Uncontrolled intersections also make residential areas quieter, Thompson said, because severe braking and accelerating occur less often.
Still, they are not foolproof.
“There’s always one or two people that are going to fly through it, and it doesn’t matter whether there is a stop sign or not a stop sign,” Thompson said. “That type of person is just going to go through them in those areas.”
They may appear odd at first, but uncontrolled intersections are not a mistake. With no signs for guidance, most drivers slow down and become more aware of their surroundings. Out of chaos comes order.