Philosophically, it is disconcerting to think that we are all helpless apes sitting on a rock, flying around a star at 18.5 miles per second. But for the vagaries of gravity — something we don’t even fully understand — centrifugal force would shear us off the planet and send us careening into the vacuum of space. Clinging to our rock, we fare little better in day-to-day life, where the chaotic vicissitudes of countless random events conspire to determine where we work, who our friends are, and whether the beer we really wanted just kicked. Desperate to believe that we wield a modicum of control over the Nietzscheian parade of the nihilistic happenstance of the everyday, we attempt to impose order on the ungovernable — groping about for some weapon to battle the cosmic maelstrom of purposelessness.
Against this absurd incoherence, we impotently put forth: Stop Signs.
Stop Signs: A Feel-Good Charade:
Since we cannot rely on common sense, common decency, or a general desire for self-preservation to entice drivers to slow down or stop at the perpendicular intersection of paths of opposing traffic, we place our faith in Stop Signs.
(Based on anecdotal experience, our faith is misplaced…)
These small red octagons serve as quaint reminders of a bygone era when people were willing to compromise their egocentricity long enough to see whether it was safe to continue ahead without seriously maiming or killing someone. Now, with the social contract essentially null and void, many people (I call them “assholes”) refuse to bend their will to the imperial dictates of a polygon.
Interestingly, Stop Signs (as I have learned from the Internet, in which we should all place absolute trust) are octagonal to make it easier for drivers traveling from the opposite direction to recognize the sign from the back. Since people rarely stop when they encounter the sign head-on from the front, it is not immediately clear why being able to recognize the ass-end of the sign should matter.
Given their limited-to-non-existent stopping power, we must ask ourselves the obvious question: Why Then Do Stop Signs Exist?
Some Other Reasons For Stop Signs:
1. Good Mental Health: Some psychologists have argued that positive illusions, including the Illusion of Control, foster mental health. As humans we like to believe — and are happier when we can believe — that the things we do somehow have some effect on various outcomes in our lives, i.e., that things we do provide an Illusion of Control. (If we eat kale, we won’t die of cancer tomorrow. If we are nice to people, they will be nice to us. If we install a Stop Sign over there, someone someday might pause before barreling through the intersection. None of these things is true, of course, but it makes us feel better to think they might be true. Like Fox Moulder, we want to believe.) Traffic engineers lack state licensing credentials to administer prescription anti-depressants, but perhaps Stop Signs are the next best thing.
2. Euclidian Equal Rights: With the exception of Stop Signs, octagons are an underutilized and underappreciated polygon. You have to admit that triangles and squares have cornered the polygon market. Pagans and the U.S. Military have enshrouded all the five-sided stuff. Bees and Allen wrenches took hexagons. Without Stop Signs, octagons would be relegated to abject disutility — little more than the ugly step-child to septagons, which (to the best of my knowledge) have no earthly purpose.
3. International Law: In 1968, a group of people (who I can only assume were bored idealistic hippies) gathered for the Vienna Convention on Road Signs and Signals — (yes, this is a thing) — which standardized international specifications for Stop Signs. (Because facilitating the ability to run Stop Signs across various nation states is a noble undertaking.) Not much was happening in world history in the late sixties, so it made sense to take a step back from the hurley-burley of geo-politics and focus on things that really matter (like uniform traffic signage). The 1968 Vienna Convention (really a thing, I swear) “revised and substantially extended” the 1949 Geneva Protocol on Road Signs and Signals. One can only begin to fathom the awesome advancements in traffic sign technology that had occurred in the intervening decades. Obviously, Truman-era Stop Signs must have been woefully inadequate by 1968.
With the semicentennial anniversary of the 1968 Convention just around the corner, now is the time to petition the UN to once again focus on this key issue. (Who knows, a uniform standard for septagonal signs may usher in a bold new era in deceleration communication — or at least get opposing traffic to stop long enough for me to scoot through an intersection.)