Monday, May 12, 2014

Apparently they get it in Idaho

I found this awesome article on the “Idaho stop” today (my friend Jon-o posted it on Facebook) and it was like a bolt from the blue. For years, I've been arguing that cyclists should be allowed to treat stop signs as yield signs: they should be able to slow down but roll through them if there is no oncoming traffic. It seemed totally sensible to me. Especially at this one 4-way stop on Alta Vista, where there's a bike lane on either side of the street. At that point, if bikes and cars are all equal in the eyes of the intersection, who, exactly, has right of way if I stop at the sign at the same time as the car right next to me?

I've dealt with confusion at stop signs where drivers have clearly not known what to do with me being there. I've waved drivers angrily through when they had the right of way. I've had drivers shout at me for heading out, alongside another car, into a four-way, and then being there in the middle of the intersection when my “shield car” accelerated faster than me, so a car turning left suddenly had to deal with a cyclist who was hidden behind another car and was now unexpectedly in front of them. I've cursed stop signs so many times.

And – rather often, I'll admit – I've executed a rolling stop, looking side to side for anything oncoming, seeing there was nothing, and cruising through without coming to a full stop.

Then I discover that in Idaho, this is totally legal (and in some other states variants of the law apply). What? Logic, apparently, has infected their legislators. I had no idea that what I already, instinctively, knew was the smarter and more efficient way of dealing with intersections, was actually legal in some parts of the continent.

But, interestingly, after I reposted the piece on my own wall, I discovered that, while my cycling friends mostly respond with a “well, DUH, finally someone gets it!”, responses like this one (on Facebook) are also rife:

“What is this now? Bikers want the same treatment and now you want more? If it was a good idea, shouldn't they allow cars the same privilege? It just infuriates drivers to see a blazen [sic] disregard for the law. The same laws which, if we break, we drivers get heavily penalized.”

Where do I start with this?

This is not “special privileges.” This is not, “oh, damn, those pesky cyclists want to use our roads and now they want to butt in front of us in line TOO?!?” (Although, if you feel that way, brace yourself: nearly all smart bike infrastructure allows bikes to filter up in front of cars at intersections.)

Bikes and cars are two different modes of travel. They have different speeds, and necessitate different intersection behaviour. Rolling through a stop sign is not a “privilege,” if that's what the rules say you should do: it's just the rules. And no, they shouldn't allow cars “the same privilege,” because of some basic stuff.

Like, cars approach an intersection at about 50kph if they're doing the speed limit in most places (80kph on rural roads, usually). Bikes, in contrast, approach the same intersection at about 12-20kph.

Approaching the intersection at 50kph, you really don't have time to see another car, at about the same distance from the middle of the intersection, also coming in at the same speed. Reaction time to hit the brakes (about 1.5 seconds on average, in braking tests) is probably about the same as a cyclist's. But your braking distance is much longer than a cyclist's (it will take you about 14 metres to stop once you hit the brakes, if you're going 50kph. That's roughly 40 feet).

Even if cars slowed down approaching stop signs (assuming the roll-through law applied to them), they'd probably slow to about 40, maybe 30kph (5m braking distance). You're still coming at that intersection faster than me, on my mountain bike, doing about 18kph.

Meanwhile, I have time to see the stop sign up ahead. I can look up. Listen for the engines of unseen cars approaching (something a driver can't do). I begin to brake, slowing up preemptively. As I get closer, I look up and down for cars that might be getting to the intersection at the same time as me. If I see none, I release the brakes, accelerate back up, and cross the intersection at about my usual cruising speed, which gets me out of the danger zone much faster than if I'd come to a complete stop and had to pedal hard to crank back up to speed. But, if I see that I'm going to reach the intersection at the same time as a car, I come to a stop. Then the usual rules about right of way kick in (the vehicle on the right has the right of way). If that's me, I go first. If that's the car, I let it go first.

If there is a car, the predictable rules (in the driver's experience) apply. If there are no cars, I don't spend unnecessary and dangerous extra time in the line of fire of an intersection. And in what way is this inconveniencing any drivers?

Much of the same logic applies to red lights. As the rule stands now, at a red light, the cyclist has to stop with the rest of traffic, then try to get back up to speed (a time when even the most experienced cyclists can experience some wobbling, especially on an uphill) in the midst of traffic which is also accelerating right next to her. If I could approach a red light, come to a stop, look around, see that it's clear and head on through the intersection, I would be clear of the intersection when the car traffic started collecting at the light, and when the intersection is at its most crowded, right after it turns green, I wouldn't be there on my bike adding to the crush. And I wouldn't have to stop and wait – which I've done – for all the cars to roar past me before I stepped on the pedals and started off. And the drivers wouldn't have to worry about the cyclist so close to them at what is so often a pinch point in traffic flow.

As for the last point about how ”it just infuriates drivers to see a brazen disregard for the law” - well. That's the point, innit? If the law encodes the smarter, more efficient behaviour at stop signs and red lights, then it's not a disregard for the law to execute a rolling stop, because it's legal. Or to cross a clear intersection when the light's red. This law would only legitimize what is already the smarter thing to do.

Oh, right. And cyclists get penalized for breaking the law too, by the way. Besides, I watch drivers run red lights on literally a daily basis. Usually many, many times a day. I don't then turn around and assume that all drivers are flagrant scofflaws.

The upshot is, cars and bikes are two different modes of transportation with different physics and practical considerations. And the rules of the road shouldn't be designed to make them equal: they should be designed to make both as safe as possible. If that means the rules are different for different modes, so be it. That's not special privilege, that's logic, and this isn't a pissing match about who gets to be first through the intersection.

I for one would be happy to see the Idaho stop come to Ontario: I've argued many times that bikes should treat stop signs as yields. I doubt it'll happen anytime soon. But it's nice to know that there are jurisdictions out there that have realized what I knew instinctively from a season or so of riding, and had the guts to put it into the law.


  1. A late comment, but most of the stop signs on my cycling routes are not there to regulate intersections, but rather they are there for traffic slowing. That's right they are there because too many drivers race through residential streets at unsafe speeds, so they put in stop signs to try to slow things down. As a motorist, I always do full stops at stop signs, but as a cyclist I treat them as yield signs...if there is traffic, I do full stops but in the absence of traffic, I slow have a good look (better than I would ever get in a car!) and then proceed if clear. Maybe if there weren't so many reckless drivers, we wouldn't need all of these stop signs.

  2. I was thinking about this very same thing today as I rolled through a deserted intersection in a sub-urban residential neighbourhood. How would I explain my action to a passerby without losing their interest or sympathy. I had to do this years ago, and would resort to the same comment today. Walking and cycling are both amiable and allow plenty of time for friendly negotiations that are simply not available to motorized vehicles. Bicycles are not cars. If cars were required to come to a complete stop, shut off their engine, remove their keys from the ignition, re-insert them and restart their engine at every stop sign or major intersection I would be happy to see them treated equally as vehicles sharing the road.