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?