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Kent Bernhardt: The intersections of life

Kent Bernhardt


We sat frozen in the moment, our eyes meeting for the first time. We knew not what would happen next, for each second seemed an eternity.

That’s not a line from a suspense novel. It’s a description of my last encounter with fellow travelers at an intersection with a four-way stop.

The four-way stop intersection is our state’s way of making us appreciate traffic lights. We tend to take their colorful presence for granted until they are taken away from us and replaced by those glaring red octagonal signs.

Once pretty standard in highway travel, they disappeared for a while and then began re-appearing as a cost saving measure at troubled intersections. They tend to work well, provided drivers notice them and – and here’s the important part – actually know what to do when they encounter one.

Let’s take a moment and review the official procedural outline at a four-way stop:

  1. You should first actually come to a full stop. Not a rolling stop, and not a “I’m pretty sure I stopped back there” stop. Come to a full stop.
  2. If there are no drivers stopped to your left, right, or ahead of you – today is your lucky day. You can now proceed without a care in the world. Life has just handed you a bouquet of flowers.
  3. If you come to a full stop before a driver, for example, on your right – since you arrived at the intersection first, you have the right away and may proceed before they do. This will not excuse you, however, from the occasional dirty look from that driver on the right who thinks they arrived there first.
  4. If you both arrive at the intersection at the same time and no slo-motion video replay is available at the intersection to determine who really got there first, the driver on the right has the right of way.
  5. This remains true if three cars arrive at the intersection at exactly the same time. The driver on the right has the right of way. If there is no one on your right, that’s you.

This doesn’t mean the driver on the right will assume their leadership role and proceed first, however. On a recent sunny morning, the driver on the right stared at me like a terrified deer, afraid to proceed under any circumstances and hoping we would all just disappear. It took a smile and a gentle hand gesture to coax her into movement.

  1. Now we examine the perfect storm; all four drivers have arrived at the intersection at exactly the same time. Like Halley’s Comet, this is a rare occurrence yet it is a moment that tests a driver’s very being. Years of driver’s education could not possibly prepare you for this moment, but just like the pimple before the prom, it’s here.

Carefully do the following:

Nod your head to each driver, establishing your presence. Smile, but prepare your middle finger for use if needed.

Rev your engine gently, not in a threatening manner. This sets the stage for your dominance and willingness to lead. The other drivers in the herd will note this.

Gently inch forward. As soon as you notice that the other three drivers have done the same, retreat in reverse.

After about fifteen minutes of glaring at each other and checking your e-mail, repeat the engine rev and inch forward again. By this time, the other drivers – weary and running low on gas – will welcome your bold move and allow you to proceed.

I hope these simple steps will help you navigate the challenges we face at the complicated intersections of life.


Kent Bernhardt lives in Salisbury.

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