What four-way stops can teach us about this moment in America.
Trusting systems — any system — is getting harder to do. But choosing to cheat the system is worse.
If you’ve ever driven a car, chances are you’ve stopped at a four-way stop. You know, where two roads intersect at four stop signs. The rules are simple. It’s your turn only after every car that was there before you has gone. If everyone follows the rules, it creates an emergent system, a simple round robin that flows so long as there are cars at the stop signs.
But every once in a while, someone cheats.
The stakes are small enough that the system isn’t enforced, after all. And cheating on a four-way stop doesn’t really harm anyone else. What’s a few more seconds at the intersection in the end? Which is also why the value of cheating is so low. But people do it anyway. They inconvenience their fellow drivers, usually neighbors — or at least people with whom you share a community — to gain just a few more seconds.
I’m always looking for tangible ways to measure our shared commitment to one another — and the number of times someone cheats a four-way stop is helpful, a “four-way trust quotient” if you will. There are several three- or four-way stops I drive through regularly, and I’ve found that the number of drivers who cheat the stops has gone way up over the past several years. It speaks to a broader set of trends that worry me.
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