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:
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.
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?