Thursday, October 3, 2019

Idaho Stop Me If You've Heard This One Before

My workplace has enough people who bike to work that there is an email group. Generally, it's pretty quiet. But yesterday, a colleague wrote to me and the manager of the group to ask a question.

"I've been riding to work lately," she said, "and I've had some drivers honking at me for continuing through stop signs. Am I supposed to stop? Do you always stop at stop signs?"

I wrote back with my usual response, to wit: According to the HTA, cyclists are supposed to come to a full stop at all stop signs before proceeding. But, also according to the HTA, so are drivers. People seem to pay attention when cyclists roll through: people seem to disregard the fact that drivers do too, almost all the time. What I actually do at an intersection with a stop sign is slow up, look to see if there are any approaching cars, and do a calculation of when each of us will arrive. If there's any chance at all the driver will be near the intersection at the same time as me, I slow to nearly stopped. Then it's a matter of deciding whether the driver or I have right of way (applying the rules of turn taking at stop signs), and proceeding. Do I stop entirely? Sure, if there is more than one car, or if the driver has right of way and doesn't take it right away. But in most cases, honestly, I don't come to a complete stop, I wait on a slow roll, let the driver go (or slow up themselves), then take my turn. There's usually plenty of time to do that, and usually it's pretty smooth. And guess what? Most of us do this calculus every time we reach a stop sign, regardless of the vehicle we're in charge of.

And if no cars are nearby I have plenty of time to ascertain that, look both ways, slow up enough to be sure, then continue through.

And I added, to my colleague, that this is commonly called an "Idaho stop" and something I really, really would like to see adopted by the province of Ontario.

Today, the manager of the email group (who had agreed with me on stop etiquette) posted to the entire group. He'd just seen a cyclist pulled over by the police, on the quiet residential street behind our building, for rolling through a stop sign. He asked the group at large: what do they all do? Did they know about "Idaho stops"? Did they agree?

The response was about what you'd expect: everyone responded that they don't stop at a stop sign unless there is a car involved, at which point communication and turn taking take charge.

And also, agreement that the police are wasting time and resources hanging out on Central Park looking for people on bikes rolling through stops, when on the other side of our building is an intersection where a friend of mine had her car totalled just trying to pull out of the parking lot, and where, daily, pedestrians are bullied through crosswalks, and people race through right-turn slip lanes, and run red lights virtually every cycle.

On Twitter, when I vented about this, I got a bunch of agreement, and this reply from Ottawa Police:

Okay okay okay, I get it, "The Rulez" apply to everyone. But almost 100% of cyclists roll through stops defensively and in a way that does not endanger them or anyone else (because honestly, if it would endanger someone else, it would also endanger the person on the bike), which is more than can be said for drivers.

In short: a rulebreaking behaviour which doesn't actually endanger anyone, versus a rulebreaking behaviour that is utterly normalized, and does.

Oh yeah, here's another one.

Every day, at every intersection, I watch drivers blast through red lights. Because they feel like they waited too long. Because they were in the left turn lane and there was opposing traffic for the whole light cycle, so at least they ought to be allowed to go. Because they weren't paying attention. Because it was a T intersection and they didn't think it would matter.

The kneejerk response to a cyclist pointing out that those people are far more of a danger to themselves and others than a cyclist on a side street is just plain boring. And stomping your feet and insisting that you're being perfectly rational by saying "everyone should obey the same rules" is just stultifying. Just no.

Yes, the rules are in the books. No, they don't make sense. The lived experience of every cyclist will tell you that in many cases it is safer to proceed through an empty intersection, and so get out of it before a driver shows up to muck up the calculus. And that - given the speed, weight, braking distance and reaction time difference - the consequences of a driver breaking this rule are far, far higher than the consequences of a cyclist breaking it.

When you stamp your feet and say "we should all be obeying the same rules" it's usually a sign that the rules work to your benefit over other people, and you're scared that if they change, you'll lose that power. It's not a good look.

Also: the HTA is going to be opened up to revision not too far from now and we should totally get on adopting the Idaho stop in Ontario. Think of all the police resources we'd free up to deal with actual dangerous behaviour.


  1. I'm convinced. But I would be, eh? I think it might help to include this link, though:

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