September 1, 2017
The California Roll, Idaho Style
By: Bill Oetinger
I’m going to let other people write most of my column this month. What I want to say has been said well in some other publications. I simply want to spread the word. I’ll provide links to those other articles, but in case the links cease to work at some future point, I’ll reprint their copy here as well.
What’s it about? It’s about a bill in the California legislature that would change the vehicle code concerning cyclists and stop signs. It would allow cyclists to treat at least some stop signs as yield signs, slowing to assess cross traffic issues, then rolling through. The reference in the header to Idaho has to do with the fact that stop-as-yield has been the rule of the road in that state for 35 years and seems to be working very well.
But all of this is explained in the articles I mentioned. First is an editorial published in the Los Angeles Times on May 6 of this year. Here is some of the copy from that piece…
“Should a bicyclist be allowed to roll though a stop sign when there’s no traffic around? Idaho lawmakers thought so when they loosened rules for bike riders more than 30 years ago, allowing them to treat a stop sign like a yield sign.
“Intuitively, it seems unsafe. Don’t we put stop signs in places where traffic needs to, you know, stop? Yet changing the law didn’t result in carnage on Idaho’s streets. Not only didn’t cycling become more dangerous in that state, it apparently got safer. One study found that overall cycling injuries decreased in the year after the law changed and there was no significant change in fatalities. Was that because of the new law? Maybe.
“According to Boise bike and pedestrian advocates, the new approach was a success, though the evidence is mostly anecdotal. Motorists didn’t freak out and pedestrians weren’t mowed down by bike riders emboldened to break other rules of the road. And there was no uptick in collisions with bicyclists. That’s great for Boise, but would it work in Burbank? That’s a question California lawmakers will grapple with Monday when they consider passing a version of the “Idaho Stop” law that would allow bicycles statewide to treat stop signs as yield signs. Bikes would still have a legal duty to stop for pedestrians and cars that have the right of way.
“The Idaho experience suggests there’s a benefit to adopting a similar practice in California as the state tries to encourage cleaner forms of transportation. But a suggestion is not enough to support such a radical and conceivably dangerous change. Few things spark such antipathy toward cyclists as the sight of riders blowing through intersections. What we need is more data.
“This may sound like a cop-out in a pretty polarizing debate, but it’s not. Rather than rejecting Idaho stops outright (as lawmakers in Colorado did earlier this year as part of a bill that would have allowed cyclists to run some red lights as well), lawmakers should try it out. France did pilot programs in some of its cities; Paris eventually adopted the practice. A pilot program in a city or cities in California would take the hyperbole out of the debate by providing hard facts with which to test the claims from both sides.
“Bike advocates say changing the law would codify what is already a regular and safe practice by most bike riders to slow down and look around before rolling through intersections, and would stop inconsistent enforcement of the law. Opponents, including the California Police Chiefs Assn. and the Automobile Club of Southern California, respond that bicyclists’ habit of breaking the law isn’t a good reason to change it. Besides, they say, California is not Idaho, and rolling through a stop sign would be dangerous here. Only hard facts are going to bring these two sides together.
“Motorists should support a test run as well. It may seem counterintuitive, but letting cyclists safely roll through intersections may actually improve the traffic flow on residential streets. Consider this scenario: A bicyclist reaches a four-way intersection before a car approaching from her left, and she has the right of way. The car driver must wait until the law-abiding bike rider comes to a full stop, then slowly gets going again. If the bicyclist had been allowed to slow but not stop, it would have cut the car’s waiting time — not by a lot, but enough to make a difference on heavily trafficked residential streets in cities like Los Angeles.
“It could make a journey safer for cyclists as well. Streets with stop signs generally have lighter car traffic than those with signals. But having to stop at every sign when there are no cars around is not just inconvenient, it’s exhausting. It takes considerably more energy to pedal from a full stop than to just a slow down and then continue. Some bicycle advocates say that law-abiding bike riders may naturally choose the faster yet more perilous busy roadways over side streets.
“Will pedestrians be creamed by bike riders flying through intersections? Probably not. If California bicyclists are already rolling through stop signs routinely (and studies indicate they are) then pedestrians here aren’t paying a big price for it now. According to the California Highway Patrol, in 2016 there were 119 injury collisions between bicycles and pedestrians in the entire state, down from 144 the year before and 162 in 2014. And since 2014, only two people have been killed in bike-pedestrian collisions.
“Both supporters and opponents agree that there’s a lot of confusion among motorists about the rules regarding bicycles. Many don’t realize that bicycles have as much right to the road as cars and that state law allows them to take up an entire lane of traffic when there’s not enough room on the right side of the road. Would loosening the rules about stop signs make the confusion worse? Would it incentivize cyclists to break other laws and make it harder for police to issue tickets for running stop signs? Or would it improve traffic flow and encourage more people to ditch their cars for bikes? Let’s find out.”
Next, here’s an article from Bicycle Retailer published on July 31…
“For 35 years, people riding bikes in Idaho have been allowed to do something they can't legally do just about anywhere else—treat stop signs as yields. After determining it is safe to do so, bicyclists in Boise can coast through stops without losing momentum or their balance. Until June 2017, Idaho was the sole state that permitted this behavior. It's been joined by Delaware through a bill passed in June (not yet signed by the governor).
Is California next to change the law? An unusual bipartisan bike bill (AB 1103) would permit the "Idaho stop" in the Golden State. Idaho and Delaware are fine states, but California is the nation's most populous and arguably most influential. A change in California would create a powerful precedent for reform across the country.
“Other states have tried, but failed, to enact similar legislation. Oregon, Arizona, Colorado, Minnesota, Arkansas, Utah, Oklahoma, and Montana all have made attempts. That's an indication that rolling through stops is not confined to Idaho, Delaware or California. It's also not rare behavior. A DePaul University study done in Chicago found that 96 percent of bike riders didn't come to a stop. Millions of times a day across the U.S., riders treat stops as yields—without catastrophic results. In Idaho, injury collisions actually decreased after it changed the law and have remained at low levels since.
“The California bill's proponents cite a litany of benefits. Existing law is less safe for bike riders. It increases bike riders' exposure time to cross traffic. It impedes traffic flow by making everyone wait. Current law, if followed, makes trips by bike more arduous and less convenient, and so less likely. Coming to a complete stop instead of coasting through stops requires expending 25 percent more energy.
“Current stop sign law makes most bike riders scofflaws even though safely yielding creates no harm to others. While current law is rarely enforced, it is subject to arbitrary or unreasonable enforcement, including allowing racial profiling. In California, fines for riders on 20 pound bikes are the same as for motorists in two ton SUVs, though the danger created is far less.
“The California bill faces serious opposition. Despite the decades of positive experience in Idaho, the Police Chiefs Association, AAA, Teamsters, and members of the disability community all worry about a different outcome in California. They argue interactions at intersections need to be predictable, not based on subjective decisions by bicyclists. Blind pedestrians recount close calls with bicyclists and worry about getting creamed by a rider blowing through an intersection. Even some bicyclists object to "special privileges" for bicyclists, citing the "Same roads, same rules, same rights" mantra.
“There are counterarguments. Yielding is far different than blowing through stops. Yield signs are used around the world and are well understood. Motorists make subjective judgments every day: whether it is safe to pass on a two-lane highway, if there is enough time to turn left in front of an oncoming vehicle, or what is a safe speed in bad weather.
“Having more bike riders, and fewer vehicles, would make pedestrians safer, not less safe. And maybe more bike riders would stay off sidewalks and out of the pedestrian realm if they felt streets were more welcoming.
“There are already different laws for different road users based on physical and operational characteristics, such as different speed and weight limits for trucks and bus or bike only lanes. Some differences in traffic law are based entirely on environmental concerns. HOV lanes may be used by specific vehicles—those with passengers and, in some states, those powered by alternative fuels.
“Bicycling should be encouraged precisely because it is different — better for the environment and public health. Bike riders are also uniquely able to judge conditions at intersections and to react because of their low approach speeds, position at the front of their "vehicle," unobstructed vision, unimpeded ability to hear, and ability to stop quickly.
“The League of American Bicyclists neither opposes nor supports states or cities adopting stop as yield laws. The League's policy director, Ken McLeod, said, "The limited data we have from Idaho suggests that the law is beneficial for bicycling, but more data would help inform the debate." The LAB website notes, "...laws that make cycling easier without having a quantifiable downside should be an easy sell."
“Alex Logemann, the policy director at PeopleForBikes, said the group has no official stance either. His organization favors "rules that create predictability. It's a safer environment if everyone knows what everyone else is doing." He offered it would be "good if more states experiment."
The California Bicycle Coalition fully supports the bill. Executive Director Dave Snyder said, "It makes sense to let traffic flow, make bike riding safer and easier, and lift a cloud of illegality from something that virtually everyone does without a problem."
“Bike shop owners and industry members who feel California's "stop as yield" legislation would result in more (and guilt-free) customers and a more favorable societal view of bicycling can support the bill by signing the petition or sending the letter at the Calbike website.
End of the extracts from other sources and back to me…
I don’t have too much to add, which is just as well, with the two editorials above running long and heavy, not to mention the links to other articles. If you get into the topic, you could be reading for hours. However, I will add one more link to a column I published in this space back in 2013, called Stop or Yield? I was discussing stop signs on the American River Bike Trail outside Sacramento. Although I sidestepped any larger discussion about stop signs out on major roads—not just bike trails—all of the arguments I make fall pretty much into lockstep with what the proponents of this new ordinance are saying. I just reread it after poring over these editorials and I think the points I made then make sense now.
There is an awful lot of resistence lined up against this bill and as one of these editorials points out, similar bills have gone down in flames in many other states. I can understand that. There is a mountain of entrenched hostility working against anything that might appear to cut cyclists any slack. Making it legal to allow cyclists to do what they’re already doing, more-or-less en masse, would feel to many as if we’re letting the criminals get away with their crimes. That’s going to be a tough sell. But I like the fact that we’re trying for this and that we are at least having the conversation.
Bill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org