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Bill  On The Road

 by: Bill Oetinger  3/1/2013

Stop or Yield?

I was recently riding with friends on the American River Trail out of Sacramento. If you're a Northern California cyclist, you probably at least know of the existence of this marvelous bike trail: 32 miles long, from Sacramento all the way up to Folsom Lake. I've been aware of it for years and had even done a few miles of it. But this was my first chance to do the rest of it that I had not yet seen, and with local friends to guide me, we did all of it and then some.

But this isn't exactly about that trail system. Well, it's about one small detail on the trail which bugged me enough that I'm devoting a column to it. But first, let the record show that I think the trail is wonderful: an amazing recreational facility for cyclists and runners and other trail users. Not only is the main trail well thought out, well constructed, and well maintained, there are also all sorts of amazing embellishments, including a number of big bridges across the river…even a suspension bridge connecting to the Sacramento State campus that looks like a scaled-down version of the Golden Gate Bridge…just for bikes and peds. The amount of money and planning and political willpower that has been lavished on this system over the past 40 years is awe-inspiring.

Okay, so what, in the midst of all that wonderfulness, did I find to quibble about? I admit, it's a very small item, and it's almost more of a philosophical issue than a physical one. What bugged me was gratuitous stop signs.

Whenever the trail crosses a busy road, it scoots under it through a tunnel. No problem there. But in quite a few spots, the trail crosses minor roads carrying little or no traffic, and in these cases, it crosses at surface level…on the street. At all of these crossings, the cyclists are confronted with stop signs.

I am certainly not going to advocate blowing across busy through streets without stopping. When a road carries even a moderately heavy burden of traffic, then for sure, you should stop, and there should be a stop sign to admonish you to do so. Likewise, if the sight lines are obscured so you can't know whether any traffic is coming, you should stop.

But the key here is the word "busy," plus the further matter of sight lines. The crossings I'm talking about are on tiny roads to nowhere. 99% of the time, they have no cars on them at all. In fact, the pedal-powered vehicles crossing these intersections outnumber the occasional motor vehicles by a huge margin…50 to 1? 100 to 1? What's more, in the cases I'm bugged about, you can see for an ample distance in either direction as you approach the crossing, so you know well in advance whether it's clear and safe to ride through.

So why do they have big red stop signs at each of these crossings? Wouldn't it make more sense to have yield signs instead? As it is now, thousands of cyclists every day are approaching these crossings, observing that there is no traffic on the roads, and then rolling right through…blowing the stop signs.

Thousands of cyclists a day are breaking the law. They are a nation of scofflaws, not because they are really hardened criminals, but because the "law"--the stop sign--is inappropriate for the setting. A yield sign would much more accurately address the prevailing conditions. It pretty much goes without saying that if you see a car approaching, you, on a bike, are going to yield to the car. You might posit some testosterone-crazed boy racer who would try to jam through ahead of the car, or some brain-addled street person who might try to do the same. But those goons are going to do that whether there's a yield sign or a stop sign. You can't legislate for that level of stupidity. But you can try to tailor the laws to fit the real world where most of us live (and ride).

The philosophical issue I have with this is that it seems to be yet another case of cyclists being treated like slightly incompetent doofuses; that we aren't given credit for being able to make responsible, sensible judgments out on the road. Everything is dumbed down for us. It's patronizing. And, because sensible, responsible cyclists are going to ignore these non-sensical stop signs, it promotes stop sign running (just as the artificially low 55-mph speed limit on interstates created a generation of speeders, before they rescinded that law).

Now…I can just hear some of my friends howling and gnashing their teeth. These are the hardcore stop sign stoppers…always, everywhere, no exceptions. They probably think my lobbying for a modification of the standards here is the beginning of the slippery slope: if you let them roll through here, where next? But I don't see it that way. I'm not going to open up the big can of worms that is stop signs out on the open roads (and cyclists rolling through them). That's a topic for another day. I see this as an exceptional case. I'm only talking about the scenarios described above: tiny, little-used roads and driveways (with low speed limits) crossing a bike trail, with ample sight lines for seeing and assessing the situations.

They might say to me: but what about children? Do you let them roll through the crossings? Are you going to trust them to make good decisions? And I say: yes, you do; yes, you are. Look, if you cannot teach your child the meaning of and the difference between a stop sign and a yield sign, then you have no business taking that child out on a bike ride. If the child is experienced enough to manage a bike, then they should be experienced enough to manage the decision-making processes that go with watching out for traffic on a cross street.

As things are now, if the child sees hundreds of adult cyclists blowing through these unnecessary stop signs, the child may cease to take stop signs seriously…anywhere. It's like the boy who cried wolf: if you tell people to STOP too many times when it's not really needed, then stop signs cease to have any credibility. The next thing you know, the child is riding through a stop sign where a stop really matters, with potentially disastrous consequences. Use yield signs for the cases in point here, and leave stop signs for the few places where stopping really matters.

I debated whether to write this column at all. I never want to give the bike haters out there any ammo…anything they think they can use to support the assertion that cyclists are renegades, living outside the law, arrogant anarchists, accidents waiting to happen. But as I have said many and many a time before, I do not like being treated as anything less than an equal player out there in the traffic mix. And being commanded to make a stop when it is manifestly clear that such a stop is unnecessary is just one small way in which we are made to act and feel like second-class citizens. To paraphrase Nancy Reagan, a unilateral policy of "Just say STOP!" is simplistic in a real world where complexity requires multiple options.

I'm not suggesting the County of Sacramento should go out and replace all those gratuitous stop signs with yield signs, although the cost of doing so would be a drop in the bucket in their overall trail budget. I just want to kick start the conversation…get people thinking about it. Perhaps you are a civil engineer or a traffic planner, or perhaps you know someone who is. The next time one of these trail projects is in the planning pipeline, maybe consider an alternative to putting up stop signs at every single junction out there. When a yield sign will do the job instead, try that. Turn those thousands of stop-sign-running scofflaw cyclists back into the responsible, intelligent riders they actually have always been.

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net

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