Idaho Stop Law in Wisconsin?

A stop sign in Bayside, WI.

The recent discussion about people on bicycles riding four across raised the issue of laws that were created solely for motor vehicles and should not be applied to bicycles, specifically stop signs. I received an email from a reader named Ben who asked me if I thought it would be a good idea for the Bike Fed to pass a Wisconsin version of the Idaho Stop Law. The basic tenet of the Idaho law, which was passed in 1982,  is that bicycles are allowed to treat stop signs as yield signs and treat red lights as stop signs. For your reference, I have pasted Ben’s argument and the exact language of the Idaho law below:

 

Hi Dave,
I enjoy reading your blog, and posts like today’s on facebook.  I’m a very strong proponent of cycling, especially commuting, and I feel like a lot of the public’s animosity, for better or for worse, focuses on cyclists who break mundane traffic laws.  To be honest, I try to always be the ideal ambassador.  I’ve worked in the past teaching cycling safety, so this issue is something I’m familiar with and prioritize in how I cycle. But sometimes when I’m cycling, and if no one’s looking, and it’s all clear, well….     So, here’s how I view the argument:  The conflict seems over how cyclists treat intersections, specifically stop signs and red lights.  The laws governing these intersections are written for how cars move, and not cyclists.  I know it’s not rocket science, but it takes a lot less work and is far less obnoxious for a car to come to a complete stop, then just feather the accelerator, than for a cyclist to put on the breaks on all the momentum they’ve earned, only to come to a stop that in their judgement is unnecessary for their safety. I try to explain to my non-cyclist friends this is about equally as obnoxious as if drivers theoretically had to bring their cars to a stop, and turn off the ignition, and briefly get out of their car.  It’s a waste of time, gets frustrating quick, and as a driver you don’t feel like it’s increasing your safety at all.  The second argument I see for biker-scoflaws is that they are clearly the more vulnerable occupants of the road, compared to cars, and have a very strong incentive to navigate safely, especially if they are versed in safely sharing the road.  On the opposing side, is the succinct, and pretty effective argument that ‘the law is the law’, and that it’s not our right as citizens to choose which laws we are above.  After all, when a driver breaks a road law I was expecting them to obey and comes recklessly close to hitting me, this is one of the few things in life that truly gets me raging mad.  There’s no reason cyclists should be excused from this same sense of being accountable on the road.     I’m wondering why no other state –including Wisconsin– has emulated Idaho’s bicycle law?  To quickly recap the ‘Idaho Law’, for a cyclist a stop sign is to be read as a yield sign, and a traffic light is to be viewed as a stop sign.  It seems like a fair compromise, allows cyclists to work within the law and still be safe, and importantly, doesn’t give cyclists a bad image.  The law has been around since the 1980s, with no study finding an increase in injury.  For a cyclist, it makes all the difference in the world.  And importantly, I bet your counterparts in the potato state aren’t having to be responding to angry driver emails and editorials constantly.  So, my long-winded two-part question:  does the BFW have a stance on the ‘Idaho Law’ being implemented in Wisconsin, and why, generally, has no other state followed suit?  It seems the only cost is political capital, and the only outcome is if not more goodwill towards cyclists, less animosity and a better image. 

     If you do mind answering my question, it’d be great to hear your stance via the blog. Otherwise, I’ll be volunteering at the Saris Gala doing data-base entry at check-in (perhaps dressed like a giraffe), and would really like to hear your thoughts.
Thanks, Dave, and keep up the great work.
Ben

 

TITLE 49

MOTOR VEHICLES

CHAPTER 7

PEDESTRIANS AND BICYCLES
49-720. STOPPING — TURN AND STOP SIGNALS. (1) A person operating a bicycle or human-powered vehicle approaching a stop sign shall slow down and, if required for safety, stop before entering the intersection. After slowing to a reasonable speed or stopping, the person shall yield the right-of-way to any vehicle in the intersection or approaching on another highway so closely as to constitute an immediate hazard during the time the person is moving across or within the intersection or junction of highways, except that a person after slowing to a reasonable speed and yielding the right-of-way if required, may cautiously make a turn or proceed through the intersection without stopping.
(2)  A person operating a bicycle or human-powered vehicle approaching a steady red traffic control light shall stop before entering the intersection and shall yield to all other traffic. Once the person has yielded, he may proceed through the steady red light with caution. Provided however, that a person after slowing to a reasonable speed and yielding the right-of-way if required, may cautiously make a right-hand turn. A left-hand turn onto a one-way highway may be made on a red light after stopping and yielding to other traffic.

 

While no other state has passed a version of the Idaho Stop Law, a number of them are considering it. In case you only skimmed Ben’s email, his arguments mirror those in the other states. Stop sign laws were written for motor vehicles and ignore the fact that bicycles operate with completely different manner:

  • Bicycles can stop on a dime compared to motor vehicles
  • People on bicycles can see and hear oncoming motor vehicle and pedestrian traffic much better than people in motor vehicles
  • Percentage wise, bicycles require tremendous amounts of energy to restart and maintain speed. For instance to maintain an average speed of 12 or 13 miles per hour,  a person on a bike who has to stop at a stop sign every block needs to pump our 500 watts after every stop.  That is well beyond what most non-athletes can do.
  • Bicycles do not pose the same threat to pedestrians that motor vehicles do.

Perhaps the most compelling argument for an Idaho style stop law is that by denying physics and human behavior, our current stop laws criminalize the most prevalent, common sense, safe human behavior. It would remove the most common complaint about scofflaws on bicycles ignoring stop signs and running red lights.

But is it safe? Studies show that after the law passed in Idaho, the number of bicycle crashes actually decreased and Idaho still has a very good bicycle safety record. The video above highlights many of these arguments and was produced for a campaign to get a similar law passed in California.

What are the arguments against such a law?  For one, I often argue that stop signs are overused because traffic engineers have been forced by elected officials to put them in where they don’t belong to reduce speeding on neighborhood streets.  The federal Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices, MUTCD , is the bible of traffic engineering, and clearly states that stop signs “SHALL NOT” be used to control speed. When I learned to drive in the 70s (yes, I am really old), most intersections of local side streets in Milwaukee did not have stop signs or even yield signs. People were expected to drive slowly, check the intersections for cross traffic and follow the rules of right of way.

Today virtually every minor intersection has some stop or yield control sign, primarily because neighbors complained about speeding cars, not because the intersection had a crash problem that could be solved by right of way control.  The proper answer to speeding is traffic calming (speed humps, chicanes, etc.) and better enforcement, not stop signs. So I have argued that before we change the laws, how about we remove all the unwarranted stop signs and actually begin to enforce the speed limits on neighborhood streets.  That way we would reduce the number of stops signs, making bicycling more convenient, but keep them where they are really needed.

The sad reality though is that it is politically very difficult to almost impossible to remove a stop sign once one has been installed. So while I stand by my argument from a theoretical standpoint, I recognize that we will probably never be able to do it.

Another argument against this is made by strict vehicular cyclists who argue that bicycles fair best when they act as and are treated as vehicles and traffic laws should be applied equally to all road users. The problem with this theory, is that it ignores the laws of mass and acceleration. Bikes are not like cars and people riding bikes naturally behave differently than people in cars. I am not totally opposed to all the teachings of vehicular cycling, but I think it needs to be tempered a bit based on the laws of physics and human nature.

To get back to Ben’s ultimate question, the answer is no, at this point the Wisconsin Bike Fed does not have an official position on the Idaho Stop Law.

So, what do you think?  Should the Bike Fed work to get a version of the Idaho stop law passed in Wisconsin?  We already helped get a law passed that allows bicycles and motorcycles to go through a red light after stopping and waiting for 45 seconds if it does not detect bicycles. Should we go the next step?

 

About Dave Schlabowske, Deputy Director

Dave was the first full-time staff member hired to open the Bike Fed's Milwaukee office 11 years ago. A former professional photographer and life-long Milwaukee resident, Dave lives with his wife Liz and daughter Frankie in the Washington Heights neighborhood on Milwaukee's west side.

27 thoughts on “Idaho Stop Law in Wisconsin?

  1. Yes, I would love to see BFW pursue getting the Idaho law passed in Wisconsin. I couldn’t agree more with the arguments provided. I’ll add another: It is much less likely cyclists are texting or talking on a phone while driving, therefore better able to safely cross through an intersection while paying FULL attention to what dangers may exist. In general, cycling requires far more attention to what is happening around you than driving a vehicle.

    • Thanks for your vote Chris, I never thought about the cell phone/texting issue. You can probably add eating a burger, turning the radio dial, etc. to the list of things people do while driving. The craziest ones I have seen lately were a couple people reading the newspaper (while driving) and even one person using a laptop.

      • I have seen plenty of cyclists using a cellphone or texting while riding, while not the same percentage as motorists, people are doing it.

  2. The case you lay out is complete and I believe this is the single most important step BikeFed should take. It would be the last major hurdle to decriminalize the typical behavior of many cyclists. With the stroke of a pen it would eliminate a schism among cyclists and an argument often used against us by anticyclists, and I think just free up alot of energy for more important work. Bring it on, please!

  3. I always stop at red lights because I have found that lighted intersections carry great symbolic weight. I see car drivers blow stops frequently, and I see them roll through stops about 95% of the time. But I almost never see drivers blow red lights. For some reason it’s the one rule of the road that actually is nearly universally followed. And drivers hate red lights. Hell, when I drive I hate red lights. So as a cyclist I stop at them. I’m not being “nice” or altruistic. Fairness has nothing to do with it. I stop because blowing the red makes many drivers mad, and mad drivers are even more dangerous than non-mad drivers.

    Stop signs are another matter. Let’s face the facts. In the City of Milwaukee, stop signs are de facto yield signs for car drivers. And they do not have a clue about how to behave around bikes in a stop-sign situation. When I stop at a stop sign and wait my turn for a driver who got there first, most of the time the driver stares at me in bewilderment. A lot of the times they get mad at me because I stopped. They expected me blow the stop, and the fact that I stopped made them have to stop, and they don’t like to stop at stop signs. I have developed little tricks that I use to “fool” drivers into thinking I’m actually not going to cross their path so that they feel comfortable just going and leaving my sight. Then I go on way and everyone is happy.

    How about this as a solution. Actually enforce the speed limit for drivers (somehow the conversation usually ends here when I’m talking with drivers about these issues), and get rid of stop signs where they aren’t needed and replace them with yield signs. Until that happens let’s have an Idaho Stop Rule for bikes.

    • Hey Dave,

      I raised the solution you suggest at the end of the blog post, but as I mentioned, based on my experience, it is virtually impossible to get a stop sign removed once it has been installed, and finding the resources to enforce speed limits is not likely given our budgets. Traffic calming is an option to reduce speeding, but even when we installed speed humps and traffic circles in Milwaukee, we were not able to get the stop signs removed. For those reasons, I think the Idaho Stop Law is the only option.

  4. I would not oppose having the Idaho Stop Law here in WI. That being said however, I don’t buy the reasoning that it takes too much effort to stop and start a bike. Many ride for the exercise, so having to work a little harder is not a valid argument. I like to think of it as interval training. I do agree with Dave Steele above, a lot has to do with the perception of the motorist. I believe that the laws we do have need to be enforced. If law enforcement were to make a concerted and consistant effort to hand out tickets for speeding and failing to stop everyone would wise up in a hurry and we’d all be playing by the same rules.

    • Bob, thanks for your thoughts. Theoretically I agree with the enforcement idea, but as the guy who used to go to all the neighborhood meetings in Milwaukee when there was a speeding problem, I can tell you that it would cost a fortune to enforce speed limits on all the neighborhood streets. We had many incidents of cars going 70mph on narrow residential streets signed 25mph. Traffic calming is a much more cost effective solution. Speed humps and neighborhood traffic circles work, and they are super inexpensive compared to continual enforcement. They also have the advantage of creating bicycle boulevards when built as a network, like they have in Portland, and other cities!

  5. I support having the Idaho Stop Law here and would add the “Rule of the Grupetto” to it. That rule acts in relation to right-of way and would allow several cyclists riding together to act as a group at an intersection rather than individually. They would all be allowed to proceed in unison, rather than one at a time as cars in a row at a 4-way stop – like they are all in one vehicle.
    Dave, I understand your thinking with respect to overuse of stop signs, but this goes directly to the behavior of car drivers. Contemporary drivers in the US will drive as fast as they feel comfortable and not temper their speed because the road type and urban condition has changed. They also hate to stop which as noted, in a previous reply, above. I think it is a sociological issue. If we were to start a return to uncontrolled intersections, I’ afraid we would see an increase in crashes because the effort to retrain everyone’s thinking as drivers would be too great and unreliable. Virtually all drivers do not have a perception of yielding ROW at an intersection unless there are icons providing direction to do so, such as stop and yield signs. I know you are aware automobile crashes are the leading cause of “accidental” death in the US, and even though society in general chooses to ignore that issue for its own convenience, I think the response to removing signed intersection controls will get lots of resistance.

    • Roger, perhaps I was not clear. I dislike unwarranted stop signs, but where they were installed for speed control, I would replace them with traffic calming. Speed humps (sleeping policemen) and neighborhood traffic circles are nearly 100% effective at reducing speeds and have no annual cost like enforcement. Really, almost none of these unwarranted stop signs are because of ROW crash problems. Furthermore, our studies showed that mid-block speeds often increased after these stops were installed. And the drivers who were speeding often ignored the signs and crash rates increased.

      Traffic engineering is much better left to the (enlightened) traffic engineers rather than to politicians, however well meaning they may be.

      • I agree with you, Dave. The issue I raise is with driver behavior and public perception. I like hard traffic calming measures when a community is willing to devote the resources to build them.
        What did you think of the, “Rule of the Grupetto?”

  6. Idaho Stop laws certainly make sense. That being said, I’d prefer the Bike Fed NOT use their limited time and resources on this issue.

    A great deal of effort and political capital would be required on such a bill, and even an excellent strategy for working with the legislature can become derailed by a few well-placed negative and misleading “those scofflaw cyclists now want special privileges” articles and ads in newspapers across the state, creating public attitudes against such a bill. All that work, even in the best case, could easily come to nothing. This is what happened in Oregon over 3 years ago. For reference, see
    http://bikeportland.org/2009/03/18/the-oregonian-takes-low-blow-at-idaho-stop-law-16217
    http://bikeportland.org/2009/03/19/bta-negative-media-has-put-idaho-stop-effort-in-jeapordy-16332

    Besides, one of my fantasies is for the biggest complaint about people on bicycles from people in cars is that “those bikers always stop at EVERY stop sign – I hate having to come to a complete stop whenever I’m behind them.” Wouldn’t it be cool, not to mention politically powerful, if people bicycling are singled out because we actually follow the law (unlike people in cars in most stop sign situations).

    Finally, one of the things I’ve witnessed about many people who ride on my Poky Pedals and who want to stop at stop signs (as I encourage before each ride) is that they are poorly fitted to their bicycle or that their bicycle is a poor choice for city riding. These issues frequently make getting a foot down difficult and/or awkward for them. (And for Poky Pedalers – often timid 50- or 60-year-olds – track stands are not a good option). So I see it being a major burden for many to come to a complete stop with frequency. (Poky Pedals are urban rides, so we come to stop signs often.)

    Education about what makes for a good city bike and how it should fit – which would mean getting at least a toe down should be relatively comfortable for most people – seems valuable. I was surprised how often I’ve seen this to be an issue with folks on my Poky Pedals, since I’ve never heard about this issue in any discussion about stop signs and bicycles. That’s the reason I thought it might be valuable to mention it here.

  7. I do find uncontrolled intersections few and far between in urban areas of Wisconsin and non existent in rural areas. Uncontrolled intersections on side streets are very common in Montana even in Green Bay sized cities like Billings and Janesville sized cities like Great Falls and Missoula. Spokane, WA ( Madison size city) is loaded with uncontrolled intersections on their side streets. I could support an Idaho like stop as yield law as long as bicyclists remember that if there is traffic waiting on the other legs of a all way stop intersection they should stop and let those who got there first proceed before proceeding.

    The stop signs that irritate me the most are the ones on bike trails for residential driveways or dead roads that are nothing more than driveways maintained at taxpayers expense.

  8. 1,000% yes!

    I break the law at least 29 times every weekday and I’d rather not. I can’t think of anything else I’d rather have the Bike Fed focus on. Nothing demonstrates a lack of consideration for cyclists more than expecting us to stop instead of yield at intersections. Not only is it a waste of time and energy, but I also believe it to be more dangerous and often an inconvenience to other road users. A cyclist is more exposed and at risk during stopping, while stopped and starting from a stop. It’s an inconvenience on other road users, because it takes much longer to come to a stop and start up again and other road users have to wait that much longer to get on their way.

    Let’s do it!

  9. A body in motion should stay in motion, unless there is a really, really damn good reason why the body should come to a stop. I support the Idaho Stop Law (ISL) for Wisconsin 1000%. Passing that here sends the right message: this state wants to make bike commuting easier, faster and more enjoyable. “Sick of all that traffic on the Interstate, or sitting in traffic at all those damn red lights? Then switch to a bike.”

    That said, I’m not sure if it is an issue that the BFW should take the lead on. The BFW has multiple personalities, but the “school marm” persona of the BFW is so far invested in the “a vehicle, is a vehicle, is a vehicle” argument, and the “same rights, same responsibilities” message, that taking a 180 now and coming out in favor of the ISL could undermine the BFW’s credibility, with the public and sponsors. Conservative radio commentators and callers would have a field day. It is something the BFW should have been arguing for for years, but it may be too late now.

    Could some other group come together, and get such a law passed? Unfortunately, not likely. Lobbying is hard, time consuming and expensive, and our current set of legislators are not exactly bike friendly. So too, unfortunately, Wisconsin does not have a voter referendum process, whereby a libertarian group of cyclists favoring the Idaho Stop Law could get a binding referendum on the ballot (we only have advisory referendums in Wisconsin, so legislative action would be necessary). It’s hard to imagine that such a libertarian coalition of cyclists could manage the lobbying work necessary to get legislative action, even to get an advisory referendum on the ballot.

    As such, I think our only hope of getting an ISL in Wisconsin is for cyclists to work to elect a Governor who is an independent and intelligent thinker, who’s willing to take bold steps to increase dramatically the amount of cycling in Wisconsin, with all the many benefits such would provide to our economy and our citizens — in short: SCHLABOWSKE FOR GOVERNOR!

    • Hmm, people have suggested Mayor Schlabowske and King Schlabowske in the past, perhaps I should shoot for the middle ground and run for governor. Schlabowske for Governor – what would my slogan be? Streets are for people not just cars? We can balance our budget with a balanced transportation system? Bring back the bubbler? Priorities will have to be decided without the use of polls or pundits. Thanks for your vote!

  10. I completely agree with Dave Steele’s comments. I live on McKinley in Milwaukee, which relatively recently got a traffic calming treatment in the form of speed bumps and stop signs at every intersection, as well as most of the side streets being turned one-way to stop through traffic. What they didn’t do was narrow the streets or improve enforcement. The only thing that actually kind of works is the speed bumps (probably ’cause people are afraid of ruining their cars). People roll through the stop signs and drive the wrong way down one-ways. I guess the only positive is that people don’t expect bikes to follow any rules either, so you never get yelled at.

    What I’d love to see someone really focus on is enforcement of the stop for crosswalk rules and speed limits on major streets in Milwaukee. Try walking across most arterial streets on the north side and people actually speed up at you. Any news on your old job at the city and if the new person will focus on this sort of stuff, Dave S.?

  11. While on a tour of Long Beach’s facilities with Charlie Gandy, he instructed us that it would be ok and actually encouraged for us to roll through stop signs. While there was no Idaho Stop Sign law he conveyed to us that there was a “bicycle friendly” understanding with the local enforcement that we would not receive tickets for not stopping as long as we slowed our speed, look both ways and be able to stop our bicycles if necessary. We were not blowing through stop signs, but if we slowed and saw no conflict, we rolled on. It made for a most pleasant and practical ride. It left a lot of gray area for interpretation on the sides of the cyclists’ judgement and that of a police officer, and for that reason I may be in support of an Idaho Stop Law. However, I do agree with your point Dave, that engineers should first and foremost not use stop signs as traffic calming.

    • Interesting comment on Long Beach Catrine, especially since California has not been able to pass a version of the law.

      I still like the idea of changing the law, but if you can work out an understanding with local law enforcement, that is probably no different than people knowing they can drive 5pm over the limit past a state patrol radar unit and not get a speeding ticket.

  12. I totally agree with the Idaho bike laws. Several good reasons have been stated, but my spin is a little different. Bicyclists are a silent sport exposed to the environment where all our senses are utilized. This, combined with our slower speed, makes us able to ascertain traffic at a stop sign and treat it as a yield in a safe manner to all. Cars and motorcycles need more time at stop signs to verify dangers since they have the impediments of engine noise and/or the car’s cabin which blocks/redirects sound. I commute to work, and violate our stop sign laws all the time. I have never been injured doing this – indeed, the only time I was hit by a car was when IT treated the stop sign as a yield and “didn’t see me”. Enforcement of our stop laws on bicyclists is expensive and ineffective. Let reason prevail.

    • Ah yes, reason. Sadly it seems to be in shorter supply than extra money in government budgets ;)

  13. I support the Idaho stop law. It is sort of already written into WI law. “except that would not be applicable to bicyclists,” allows for an Idaho stop. If one were to ever get a ticket and was able to fight it, we could get it changed through legal precedent. The issue is that motorists feel that bicyclists are scofflaws so having this approach doesn’t help the image.

    Derek Parr
    Eau Claire Bicycle/Pedestrian Advisory Commission

  14. Hey Sam,

    First, yes, the City had interviews last week. I expect they will hire a new bike/ped coordinator within a month or so.

    As for the enforcement of crosswalk laws, I must say, the police do try but the problem is SO pervasive that they just can’t keep up. I used to work with them on targeted crosswalk enforcement efforts. We would have advance signs that warned people in cars of the crosswalk and the legal requirement to stop, then we would have two motorcycle officers parked by the crosswalk, and finally a police officer with a high-vis vest would try to cross the street in the crosswalk. People still failed to yield and the two motorcycle officers could not keep up writing tickets.

    One other thought on that. The other side of the failure to yield is that most people are very timid pedestrians. I used to work downtown and routinely would be working down the block, see a person at the corner in front of me waiting to cross the street. i would walk up, look for a safe gap and assertively start walking across the street expecting cars to slow or stop to yield the ROW to me. They always did, though there were sometimes screeching tires. Often I would look back and the person would still be waiting behind me. With our car culture, we have to be really clear that we expect people to yield to us. The caveat to this is that while I want to be right, I don’t want to be dead right, so I always kept a look out in case I had to jump out of the way for a car that was not going to stop.

  15. I noticed last summer walking around Atlanta that the city had installed “Stop” for pedestrian signs in the crosswalks, with a little stop sign rather than yield sign. I also know from the experience of my family members down there that there was increased enforcement of the yield to pedestrian law, in fact my brother got a stiff ticket for it.

    From my experience of walking several miles around the city of Atlanta, pretty much the paragon of American sprawl, I’d say the signs and enforcement had an effect. I was amazed at how often cars yielded to me in crosswalks.

  16. Dave,

    Different states have different laws regarding the language for crosswalks. Wisconsin state law says “yield,” hence our in-street signs also say yield. Georgia law likely uses the word “stop.”

    Studies of our in-street yield signs have show a big improvement in compliance by motor vehicles too.

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