Traffic accidents are a necessary evil with motor vehicles given their speed. Thus, with the advent of cars came stop signs and a legal obligation to come to a complete stop at a designated intersection. Such designation became the standard, red hexagonal stop sign, with the word STOP written in the middle. Some jurisdictions use a raised palm or write the word in another language such as in Quebec where stop signs read ARRÊT, or Spanish jurisdictions which use the word ALTO.

It seems almost common sense in Canada that every driver approaching a stop sign at an intersection would stop his or her vehicle at a marked stop line or, if none, then immediately before entering the intersection.

The idea of a stop sign is to recognize an intersection where full and complete stops and refreshed lookouts are required to ensure safety of all users, and at all times.

However, and in spite of the efforts of driving schools, too many - especially impatient or immature drivers - demonstrate carelessness towards others by not bringing their vehicle to a complete stop at a stop sign. Not cognizant of the hidden hazards of such a course of action, as other drivers expect him or her to come to a complete stop, and if there is no police car around, why not just go right through as if the sign were a yield sign?

And yet such a driver, at the wheel of a 2,000 kg/4,000 pound piece of metal, risks the safety and life of all others who may be compromised on that same intersection but not seen by the driver (eg. joggers, infants, the elderly and bicycles), carelessly relying on his choice of line of sight and selfish judgment.

stop signAnd so, we have statutory requirements such as this from the Ontario Highway Traffic Act, §136:

"Every driver or street car operator approaching a stop sign at an intersection, shall stop his or her vehicle ... at a marked stop line or, if none, then immediately before entering the nearest crosswalk or, if none, then immediately before entering the intersection; and shall yield the right of way to traffic in the intersection or approaching the intersection on another highway so closely that to proceed would constitute an immediate hazard and, having so yielded the right of way, may proceed."

In Nolin, Justice Krever wrote:

"... a reasonable motorist ... would have been entitled to assume that if a vehicle were approaching the through street ... on a street regulated by a stop sign, its driver would stop and refrain from entering the through street until an approaching vehicle, moving at a reasonable speed, passed safely through the intersection."

While slowing down might suffice for a yield sign, slowing down is not enough in the event of a STOP sign. A complete stop is required, but not all that is required. In Summerhayes Lumber, the court used these words:

"It may be emphasized again that the driver of a motor vehicle does not fully discharge his obligations in law by merely bringing a vehicle to a full stop before entering or crossing a through highway. He does not thereby acquire a right to proceed without regard to other existing conditions and circumstances. He must not only obey the rules of the road, but at the same time and at all times it is his duty at common law to exercise reasonable care and precaution in the particular circumstances."

In regards to crosswalks adjacent to the stop sign intersection, the Newfoundland court used these words in R v Locke:

"If there is a crosswalk, the driver of a vehicle must stop his or her vehicle before entering the crosswalk. The driver of the vehicle may then proceed, but he or she must do so with "caution" and she or he must give way to any pedestrians in the crosswalk."

As with most traffic offences, the Crown need not prove an intention to disobey the law; merely the fact of the prohibited conduct. In R v Locke, a stop sign case but unfortunately using legalese, Justice Gorman wrote:

"Offences under the Highway Traffic Act are normally offences of strict liability because of their regulatory nature. If an offence is characterized as being an offence of strict liability, then the Crown does not have to establish a mens rea element for a conviction to be entered, though it must still prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused committed the actus reus of the offence charged."

The absence of a stop sign where one ought to be constitutes a significant exposure to liability to the relevant municipal or local government. In the 2009 version of Motor Vehicles, the authors write:

"A municipality is under no duty to erect stop signs. A by-law constituting a through highway is unenforceable unless, and until, there are signs or other signals to warn the traffic. If there are no signs, there is no duty to stop. Once signs have been erected there is a duty on the municipality to maintain them and not to remove them without appropriate care. A municipality may be liable in damages if its failure to maintain signs or to take appropriate care in removing them is the cause of the accident."

Conversely, a defence of irregular stop sign authority would not impress a court.

As Justice Richards of the New Brunswick court of appeal wrote in Gibbon, where the driver tried to defeat the charge by challenging the existence of a Saint John stop sign by-law:

"To my mind a stop sign should be obeyed. In this case both (drivers) ... knew that Leinster Street was a stop street at its intersection with Carmarthen. The result of that was that Preston had a right to expect that Fortune would yield him the right-of-way, and Fortune, on the other hand, was bound to see that there was no car near the intersection before he entered it, -- in other words that he could cross the intersection safely.

"In my opinion it would be a most unfortunate thing if the drivers of motor vehicles could ignore stop signs in a city because there might be some flaw in the by-law authorizing them. If the sign is placed irregularly, the remedy is to have it removed, but while it remains it should be obeyed."

 Or Manitoba judge Dennistoun in Nelson v Dennis:

"So long as the stop signals are in position, in my humble judgment, the public have a right to rely on them, and persons who decline to obey them are guilty of actionable negligence if injury is caused by their so doing."

In R v Cyr, Justice Cameron of the Exchequer Court of Canada wrote:

"Traffic signs are placed on our highways for the safety and guidance of motorists and others and in my opinion should be observed and may be relied upon as long as they are in position. In this case, Cyr saw the sign and knew, not only that he was required to stop, but also that City Road was a through street. It was Cyr's duty, therefore, to stop his truck before entering the intersection and to refrain from entering upon it until Parsons' car had completed its crossing. His failure to do so and his failure to look out for approaching traffic, and his entry upon and deliberate crossing of the intersection under the circumstances, constituted actionable negligence for which he is liable. It was his duty to drive with particular care and to have his car under complete control so that under the existing conditions he could bring it to a stop when required to do so."

Not coming to a complete stop at a designated intersection not only endangers all other users of that intersection. A stop sign is a statement to all users that the intersection requires a complete stop as it bears the most significant risk facing pedestrians and drivers: cross traffic.

REFERENCES:

  • Gibbons v Fortune, 35 MPR 355 (NBCA, 1954)
  • Highway Traffic Act, Revised Statutes of Ontario 1990, Chapter H.8
  • "Motor Vehicles" (Ontario), Canadian Encyclopedic Digest (Thomson Reuters Canada, 2009)
  • Nelson v Dennis, [1930] 3 DLR 215 (MBCA)
  • Nolin v Tingley, 36 MVR 199 (1985, ONSC)
  • R v Cyr, [1956] Ex CR 161
  • R v Locke, 42 MVR 5th 233 (2007, NLPC)
  • Summerhayes Lumber v Bach, [1949] OWN 739 (Ontario)