Argument Against an Idaho Style “Stop as Yield” Law for Bicyclists

There has been talk of legislation being introduced in California to emulate Idaho law, which allows stop signs and/or red lights to be treated as yields by bicyclists. This was posted by David Takemoto-Weerts on January 29 to the “Handlebar” listserve for the Davis Bicycles advocacy group.

At the risk of becoming a pariah among local cycling advocates, I have to respectfully disagree with efforts to support the enactment of the “Idaho law” in California. And let me preface my comments by explaining that I am a daily cyclist (for over 40 years) who always stops at stop signs and always waits for the green light. However, I do admit that at stop signs I will often slow VERY perceptibly, almost to a full stop, before entering the intersection. While I know this violates the letter of the law, I also know that almost no motorists come to complete stops at stop signs unless there is cross traffic to wait for. I think this is acceptable, and apparently so does law enforcement, because virtually all of us who drive do the same – often in full view of traffic officers – and are never stopped for it. Cyclists need not be held to a higher standard than motorists in this situation. It’s akin to driving 70 mph when the posted limit is 65 mph. That minor “indiscretion” is clearly acceptable to virtually every police officer, judge and jury. Same goes with the stop sign situation. I know that some cyclists have been stopped and cited by police for not putting a foot down to the pavement at a stop sign, but those rare instances are the actions of abusive or ignorant officers and I don’t believe they are such common occurrences to warrant a “solution” like the Idaho law.

The main reasons that such a law is often advocated by some cyclists are these: (1) it would decriminalize existing, common behavior among many cyclists, (2) cyclists would save energy by not having to stop and start at every stop sign, and (3) cyclists would save time by not having to wait for the green light at every encounter with a red light. The latter two reasons are tempting to some because the energy saved is our own – fatigue is reduced or at least delayed; and saving time when engaging in a travel mode that is not particularly fast as compared with motorized transportation may be enticing.

The extent that stopping is a burden to cyclists is up to the individual. I’ve never considered it to be a problem. If I wasn’t fit enough to start and stop multiple times when riding, perhaps I shouldn’t be on a pedal-bike. And if the delay of waiting for a green light slows me down too much, maybe I should consider a faster mode. Most of us don’t choose cycling because it’s the quickest way from point A to B.

All that being said, I do think a good argument can be made for replacing many stop signs with yield signs signalized intersections with roundabouts.

It has also been argued by some that the Idaho law would create more predictable cyclist behavior. I think that’s illogical. At present when I observe a cyclist approaching a stop sign, I may be unsure what he is going to do. How would that be any different under the new law? I still wouldn’t know what he’d do. In fact, I’d be less sure. I guess I could just predict that whatever he did, he’d be within the law (assuming he really treated a stop sign as a yield sign and behaved accordingly – remember, there are legal and illegal ways to treat a yield sign).

And, where there is a reasonable level of traffic enforcement for all modes (e.g. when one of the Davis bicycle officers is patrolling downtown Davis), it’s pretty easy to predict behavior by most cyclists.

Here’s a scenario to consider: a cyclist approaches a red light (under the Idaho law). She stops, looks both ways, and decides to cross or turn left on the red light. Unbeknownst to her, motor traffic on her left or across the intersection has just gotten a green left turn arrow. Conflict (or worse) occurs. She wasn’t aware of that because many such signals are not visible to the cross traffic because there’s no reason for them to be when all traffic is supposed to obey them according to the same black and white rules.  I suppose you could argue that a prudent cyclist would not cross on the red light under the circumstance where there was cross traffic waiting to turn left across her path. But how many of us would make that determination under those circumstances?

My observation of the “judgment” used by many cyclists when choosing to ignore stop signs or red lights is that they often make very poor and dangerous decisions. Making such behavior “legal” won’t reduce the danger to them or others.

Another point to consider: the maturity and traffic experience to make the right decision to treat a stop as a yield or a red light as a stop sign safely is certainly within the grasp of many of us. However, as noted above, not every adult has such maturity, experience or good judgment. Most importantly – ANYONE, no matter what age and what level of experience, can ride a bike on public streets. Do you think that the typical 8-year old can make such decisions safely? I can imagine many kids emulating the behavior of adult cyclists under such a law and following careless cyclists into intersections under conditions in which the child will be in significantly more danger than the adult (visibility, speed, skill to avoid a collision, etc.). A uniform, unambiguous set of laws that apply to all road users is easier for a child to understand.

Sometimes the argument is made that cyclists should get these advantages because they’re doing the “right thing” environmentally and such. One could also argue that motorists could save a lot of fuel, money and reduce emissions if they could do the same. The “bike advocate” counters that allowing motorists to behave in this manner is too dangerous because of the potentially significant injuries, even fatalities, which might ensue.

So, if cyclists are allowed to engage in what may be riskier behavior (treating stops as yields, red lights as stop signs), the worst case scenario is that a few more cyclists may get hurt, but such incidents are only their own fault. How ridiculous is that? Imagine the reaction of the motorist who kills a cyclist, especially a child, who uses poor judgment under this law? And consider the costs to society of any serious injury. Furthermore, in a collision between a cyclist and a pedestrian, the pedestrian may be more likely to suffer serious injury. Will cyclists properly yield to pedestrians when “running” red lights and stop signs?

In conclusion, I think cycling advocates should be very cautious about pursuing such a change in the California Vehicle Code. It runs counter to the principles of vehicular cycling and also violates one of the primary elements of traffic safety: predictability. It would be better if cyclists used their energy and resources to advocate for more education for cyclists and motorists, pushed for more rational policies about the installation of stop signs and traffic signals when yield signs and roundabouts may be the safer alternatives, and encouraged more enforcement by police officers better informed about traffic law as it pertains to cyclists. Is it REALLY all that onerous to stop at stop signs and red lights?

6 thoughts on “Argument Against an Idaho Style “Stop as Yield” Law for Bicyclists

  1. Bob Sutterfield

    Any arguments of the form “it’s no worse than what those other guys do” are unpersuasive.

    The energy saved by not needing to accelerate from v=0 to v=2 is miniscule. The time lost by introducing ambiguity at intersections can be significant.

    The attraction in this proposal is probably less about conserving momentum and more about skill and confidence in re-starting from a stop, especially if foot-to-pedal fastening mechanisms are involved. But many cyclists are unaware or clumsy at a Power Pedal start even with flat pedals, which makes them reluctant to put a foot down. Thus, for their own convenience, they want to roll through intersections without slowing all the way to v=0.

    This restarting convenience doesn’t seem to me a strong enough argument for treating cyclists differently from other roadway users. If convenience were a good reason for the law to differentiate between classes of roadway users, how about forcing cyclists to ride far to the right of a lane, for the convenience of motorists who wish to overtake? (Oh wait, we already have 21202 and 21208…)

  2. Paul Walker

    I am a daily commuter via bike and I am in favor of the Idaho law and I wanted to make a few clarifications.
    1st Stop as Yield refers, usually, to stop signs and not stop lights. 2nd the law requires a full stop to the cyclist if the cyclist does not have the right of way, essentially if there is traffic in or waiting at the stop then the cyclist must stop.
    It is a bit of a judgment call by the cyclist. I also feel that auto drivers should take their right of way in an intersection. If a car is there first etc then use your right of way, the cyclist should/must stop.
    Now treating a stop light as a stop sign I am a little less comfortable with. Mostly because I do not trust motorists and see way too many cars blowing through stop lights. I say less because of so call smart lights. When a smart light is set so that the bicycle does not trip the sensor then getting through an intersection can take quite a long time and often requires dismounting to press the crosswalk signal.
    I like the Idaho law as it legitimizes my current activity, I roll through stop signs if no traffic is present, stop and yield right of way when there is traffic and I always stop at the stop lights.

  3. Robert Prinz

    I have mixed feelings about the Idaho stop law and currently stop at all stop signs and red lights, but feel that a large percentage of existing cyclists just disregarding the current California stop law is not an acceptable status quo, and ignoring it does not make it go away. As such we should either amend the law to allow what cyclists are already doing (with no big increase in the number of accidents, by the way), or ask the police to waste time and money by cracking down on those that break the law.

    I think the best solution is to actually plan bikeways with as few stops as possible, but lots of traffic calming. This way we don’t put cyclists in the position of regularly having to decide if following the letter of the law makes sense or not. Outside of that option, however, the Idaho stop law seems like the sensible alternative.

  4. Pete Hart

    A very thoughtful discussion. I’d add that as bicyclists, we all have a lot better view of the road and general situational awareness than motorists in cars and trucks. When I slow at an unsignalled intersection, I have a lot better awareness of what’s going on than drivers do who have come to a full stop. The problem, as pointed out in the article, is what we can safely rely on others to do. And, also pointed out, what about kids or adults who seldom ride?

    My personal solution is to come to a full stop at stop signs if there are other riders or motorists either stopped or closely approaching the intersection. I always stop at traffic lights unless there are no other riders or motorists in sight.

    Also, I like the idea of substituting yield signs for stop signs and the use of roundabouts. Many times, stop signs are used to slow or discourage traffic on specific streets and make little or no sense for cyclists. We need streets and highways designed to encourage bike traffic and bicyclist safety.

  5. Cee

    In response to the final question posed in the article, it is in fact quite onerous to stop at every stop sign and wait at every light. I am a Brooklyn, NY bicyclist, doing a little research on nationwide bicycle laws. As a 25 mile a day r-t commuter, I can tell you stopping and waiting at red lights timed for 30 mile per hour automobiles increases travel time by 75% to 100%, no cheap thrill in a 15 degree January gust. To be fair, by the standard of any other type of transportation, that would be considered onerous. Motor vehicles are afforded access to specially designed, stop-light-free highways precisely because of this fully acknowledged encumberance for travel over 5 or 10 miles. More importantly, being positioned motionless on a bike surrounded by 1 or 2 ton vehicles waiting to go from 0 to 35 mph in a matter of seconds puts me at risk, over and over again, over the course of such a ride. Hesitantly wobbling from a stationary position to a steadily moving one while surrounding automobiles mash the gas for near instantaneous acceleration puts me at a greater risk than had I stopped, looked both ways, and proceeded through a clear intersection in order to get up to a stable speed. A stationary bicyclist surrounded by dense, fast moving traffic is far more vulnerable than one moving at speed among or alongside those vehicles. Even in the event of an oversight or miscalculation, which ofcourse happens, an alert cyclist can typically safely and very deftly join the direction of cross traffic where necessary, with little impact on the surrounding traffic pattern. An equally alert motorist almost never is able to make a sudden, necessary 90 degree turn in an emergency without dangerously interfering with traffic.

    The article‘s author makes the principal contention that most bicyclists make ‘‘poor judgments‘‘. The argument of the article hinges on this anecdotal observation, which is the basic reason its conclusion fails to convince. The observation, while doubtlessly well intended, sounds rash, and unfair. Consider this:

    NYC has roughly 3 million households; more than half those households have no automobile. Giving multi-car households the benefit of the doubt, lets say we believe there are 2.5 million motorists on the road in a given day in New York City (where, statistically, over 90% of the population uses public transit to get to work). There are, it‘s estimated, approximately 200,000 bicyclists in the city in a given day. NYC‘s lowest automotive traffic fatality count in the past ten years was about 250 fatalities in one year. It averages approximately 20 bicycle fatalities a year, the majority of which are the products of either legally made right hand turns by cars and trucks into the paths of legally positioned bicycles, or legal & illegal bike-car interactions at intersection crossings. One out of every 10,000 bicycle riders dies in NY every year. For every 10,000 cars in NYC, one person dies, every year, in an automobile related accident. These are estimates, but they are in their respective ballparks.

    When one considers that bicycle law enforcement throughout the city has traditionally been very lax (red light violations, opposite traffic riding, and the like are routinely done in view of police officers without eliciting summonses), the common practice of bicyclists in NY (who overwhelmingly treat red lights as yields, in what is plausibly the most densely populated metropolitan area in the United States) appears to be no less safe than the common practices of motorists, who are under the much stricter scrutiny of a very well developed licensing and enforcement apparatus. A common-sensical observation of anyone who has been in a few bike collisions, and even a single car collision is that colliding with someone or something in an automobile is much more reliably dangerous for everyone involved. For a host of reasons, going through a red stop light in an automobile, considering its blindspots, given its size, is much more likely to cause property damage and loss of life than a similarly acting bicycle rider. And yet, these violations for bikers and motorists are equally illegal, not differentially illegal. Their impacts are generally very different, but their proscribed punishments are precisely the same. ($270 fine for the first offense. $450 for the next. $1020 for the third.) The principal sanity in this was that, up until fairly recently, this law was not equally enforced for cars and bicyclists.

    But, the point I am out to demonstrate is made. The statistical cocktail-napkin calculation above seems to support what is commonsense: even this virtually unregulated ragtag mass of bicyclists in a place that exemplifies the most congested of American urban settings are no more at risk of death than a very strictly (and expensively) regulated automotive paradigm that is widely accepted. To whatever extent one sees credence in these glib, breezy stats, its a pretty convincing argument that, where enforced, bicycle regulations ought to benefit from being specific to bicycles, with little risk of upending the status quo. Bicycle riders, faced with only specious guidance, do in fact appear to be making competent decisions.

    All the same, for those for whom bicycling is recreational or a hobby, erring on the side of the strictest vehicular interpretation of the law may sound quite well good enough. Unfortunately, though, many working people desperately incorporate bicycling into their lives for financial considerations (to be able to afford their commute to work, that is), in addition to the health and lifestyle choices it serves. The importance of balancing safety with the need of making a 5, 10 or 15 mile commute practical is a much more deliberative choice that involves and deserves more than simply eyeballing whether laws originally written with cars in mind apply equally well and equally fairly to both enthusiasts AND commuters. A fairminded and complex acceptance of how bikes are different from cars, from a traffic and safety perspective, deserves a rapt audience. A reasonable listener to the needs of a bicycle commuter making a 10 mile commute in one direction should sympathize with not only the measures of keeping that commuter (as well as the roads) safe, but keeping her option to commute by bicycle realistic. Day to day experience and empirical evidence suggest these goals are not exclusive of one another, but the UVC laws on the books in most states are insensitive to the working balance that has been struck by people thankful to be able to bicycle to work 5 or 10 miles every day, if only because it increases their odds of making the minimum Visa payment a few days early that month. Making biking harder, less practical, hurts people in a manner that most of us would hesitate to disclose if it had been us in that position. It doesn‘t matter whether its Brooklyn or Sacramento, this is lived knowledge that almost every working person on a bike can relate to. And the request is pretty simple. Make it practical, not harder.

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