Legalese — Stop Signs

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A stop sign is so familiar looking that even a child who is too young to read can recognize the red octagon for what it is.  However, my experience as a Municipal Court Judge tells me that while everyone understands that it means “stop” they don’t actually know what they are supposed to do.

Rumors abound.  I’ve heard that you have to stop for three whole seconds.  I’ve heard that if the car in front of you stops, and you stop behind that car, then it counts as your ‘stop’ if the coast is obviously clear.  I’ve heard all kinds of different ‘rules’ that people swear to with a near biblical certainty about where exactly one has to stop.  Very few of them are accurate.

So what is the rule for real?

In Georgia, the statute covering this issue is O.C.G.A. 40-6-72.  It says “Except when directed to proceed by a police officer, every driver of a vehicle approaching a stop sign shall stop at a clearly marked stop line or, if there is no stop line, before entering the crosswalk on the near side of the intersection or, if there is no crosswalk, at the point nearest the intersecting roadway where the driver has a view of approaching traffic on the intersecting roadway before entering it. After stopping, the driver shall yield the right of way to any vehicle in the intersection or approaching on another roadway so closely as to constitute an immediate hazard during the time when such driver is moving across or within the intersection or junction of roadways.”

What does that mean in English?  It means that unless you are told otherwise by a police officer who is directing traffic, you have to stop at a stop sign.  Specifically, you have to stop at the painted line in the street. This means that if you stop well ahead of the line or in front of it, even if you really do stop, you have ‘run’ the stop sign, technically. This covers the situation when the person in front of you stops – you can’t be a car length behind the line, you must stop at the line.  Even if you can see all the way into the intersection, even if the way was clear, and even if you did come to a complete stop.

If there is no line, then you have to stop before you get to the crosswalk.  If there is no line and no crosswalk, you have to stop at the point nearest the intersection where you can see oncoming cars. 

There is nothing in the statute about a time limit   There is no three second rule, even if that might be wise for safety purposes (ergo why you may have learned it in drivers’ ed.)  Even the phrase “complete stop” is not in the statute, though I’d argue that the phrase “completely stop” is a logical redundancy.  If you aren’t completely stopped, then you are going a little, and if you are going a little, then you haven’t stopped.  In these situations, the courts tend to use the dictionary definition of a word.  Dictionary.com defines the noun ‘stop’ as “a cessation or arrest of movement, action, operation, etc.“  This means that you must cease moving, which would be otherwise what we’d call a “complete stop.”  If your tires are still moving – at all – you have not ceased moving.  There is no such thing as a “rolling stop.”  if you are rolling, you are not stopped.

Who has the right of way at an intersection, and what happens when there is a yield sign in play is a different matter altogether, and a topic for another day.  I’ll stop here.     

Nothing in this article should be construed as legal advice.  It is being offered for informational purposes only.  No lawyer can advise you about your case without hearing the specific details of your situation.

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