(Photo by Michael Mroczek on Unsplash)
Short answer: you stop at the legal stop, not where the stop sign is. "What's a legal stop," you ask. Read on.
Many driver ed courses come in two parts. The first is classroom learning. The second is actual directed driving, when theory is put to practice. We call this the behind-the-wheel (BTW) part of the driver ed course. In the driver ed car, there's a student driver. Next to her sits the instructor, armed with a dual brake. And in the backseat, sit one or two students whose assignment it is to observe the driving.
In Oregon, a state-certified teen driver ed course must include 6 hours of BTW lessons and 6 hours on BTW observation. Often, these 6 hours are blocked into 1 hour lessons scheduled out weekly, with a couple gaps, over 8 to 10 weeks.
On the very first drive, we spend half of it getting acquainted with the vehicle and practicing basics like steering, accelerating, braking, and turning—all done in a parking lot. Then we head out into a residential area with light traffic.
As soon as we leave the parking lot, we're confronted with one of our first driving challenges—the controlled intersection. In residential areas, this usually means an intersection with a stop sign.
As the intersection looms, I ask this question of my student drivers: "There's a stop sign ahead. So where do you stop?"
Often enough, the first answer is, "At the stop sign."
"Good guess, but incorrect."
If the driver doesn't have another answer, I'll throw the question out to the student observer in the back seat.
After a couple quick rounds of back and forth, if the correct answer isn't forthcoming, then, as we roll up to the intersection, I'll ask my students to look for clues in front of the vehicle.
On the route for our first drive, looking forward and down, they see the thick white line reaching out perpendicularly from the curb a few feet before the intersecting street.
That's the legal stop.
The Legal Stop
Echoing the classroom curriculum, I remind my students that a stop sign tells you to stop, but it doesn't tell you where to stop. You must seek out other road markers to determine where, exactly, to stop.
First, as a driver, you look for the thick white band in front of the vehicle, usually near the stop sign. (But not always, if, for example, the usual spot for a stop sign has an obstruction, like a bush, tree, or brick wall.)
Now I ask my students, "If there's no white line, then where do you stop?"
By now, they've caught on, and the classroom discussion about legal stops comes back to them.
The edge of the marked crosswalk. Or, if there's no marked crosswalk, but there's a sidewalk, the implied crosswalk. This is the imaginary line that stretches from where the closest sidewalk edge ends above the curb and continues out into the road.
"And if there's no sidewalk?"
The edge of the curb.
"And if there's no curb?"
Then the edge of the intersecting road itself.
So there you have it. When approaching a stop sign at an intersection, the legal stop is not where the post holding up the stop sign sits. It's the thick white stop line. Then the crosswalk or implied crosswalk, then the curb or the edge of the road.
A Complete Stop
Now, something else I look for on the first drive—and thereafter—is that my student drivers make a complete stop at the legal stop. This means, obviously enough, that the driver brakes smoothly until the vehicle stops moving at the legal stop. You can often feel a little jerk of the vehicle when the stop is complete. That's a nice bit of physical feedback the car gives you to let you know you've stopped moving.
No "California stop," where the vehicle slows to a near stop, then creeps by the legal stop.
Then I ask my students, "How do you know that the front bumper of the car is actually at the legal stop?"
They're answer: you use your "front limit reference point."
The Front Limit Reference Point
In driver ed here in Oregon, we use reference points to help our students develop an intuition about the dimensions of the vehicle they're driving.
This isn't always obvious to the driver, who sits a few feet up above the road and has her line of sight obscured by the windshield, the roof columns, and the hood. Because of these line-of-sight blockages, much of the immediate perimeter of the vehicle is in a large kidney-bean-shaped blind spot, hidden to the driver.
Have you ever seen a car pull up to a legal stop a good car length short of the actual white line? This is often due to the optical illusion caused by the blind spot below and in front of the car. The driver thinks he's stopped at the legal stop, but he's actually far short of it.
Enter the front limit reference point. This is an imaginary line that shoots out parallel to the bottom edge of the side mirror and perpendicular to the side of the vehicle. For folks of average height in an average car, where that imaginary line crosses the features of the road's shoulder is where the front bumper of the car has stopped.
Using the front limit reference point helps students learn quickly how to stop at the legal stop with precision. Eventually, they don't need the reference point to precisely position the vehicle. Positioning the vehicle becomes a matter of "feel."
So, to recap: the stop sign tells you that you have to stop, but not where. First look for the thick white line on the road near the stop sign. That's the legal stop. If there's no white line, stop at the sidewalk edge. If there's not sidewalk, stop at the curb.