February 8, 2023

Town Councilman Shares Insights Gained as a Local Crossing Guard

To the Editor:

About 18 months ago, inspired by what I have learned through my Council duties on the Traffic Safety Committee, the Pedestrian and Bicycle Advisory Committee, and the Vision Zero Task Force, I signed up to become a crossing guard. Princeton has a pressing need for crossing guards, and I no longer was satisfied just “talking the talk” — I felt the need to start “walking the walk.”

From my vantage point as a crossing guard at the intersection of Valley Road and Jefferson Road over the past year, I have gotten to see the kinds of driver behavior that endanger not only pedestrians and cyclists, but drivers themselves. I would like to share some of the insights gained.

First a clarification: crossing guards are there to protect vulnerable roadway users — pedestrians and cyclists. We are not there to facilitate automobile traffic, and in fact are trained not to do so. I will never enter the intersection to direct traffic unless there is a pedestrian or cyclist needing assistance. I will from time to time then remain in the intersection to help clear a backlog of cars trying to get through, but that is the extent of the help I will give to drivers.

This intersection is a crossing with only two-way stop signs. Traffic on Valley Road has the right-of-way over other cars, but of course must stop for pedestrians in the crosswalks. In future postings I will focus on other suggestions to improve safety and flow, but for now want to focus on the rules governing driver behavior at the stop sign. As I hope we all know, at a traffic signal, when the light is green, drivers going straight have the right-of-way, while those trying to make a left turn must yield to oncoming traffic. At a four-way stop sign, however, drivers have the right-of-way based on the order in which they arrive at the intersection, with no distinction between those going straight and those making a turn.

But what is the rule at a two-way stop sign? If I had to guess, I would say only about 15-20 percent of the drivers coming through my intersection know the answer. I had to ask our traffic safety officer to learn it myself. It turns out that the two-way stop sign is more analogous to the four-way stop sign. In other words, drivers have the right-of-way based on the order in which they arrive at the intersection, and if someone making a left turn gets there first, they can proceed even if there is opposing traffic trying to go straight.

Because not all drivers know the rule, please continue to approach these intersections with caution. But next time you come to one when there is already a driver opposite you wanting to turn left, please wave them through before you proceed. Knowing and following the rules of the road is one of the keys to safer, more functional streets.

David E. Cohen
Princeton Councilman
Witherspoon Street