Laws that don’t help anyone usually go unheeded. But a smart one, in Idaho, could provide a nationwide model.
By Bob Mionske
In the polarized world of cyclist-motorist interactions, one sore point consistently emerges whenever drivers begin talking about cyclists—we cyclists never seem to obey traffic laws, particularly those involving stop signs. To be fair, the accusation is largely true; most cyclists don’t come to a complete stop at stop signs. And just to be clear, a “complete stop” does not require cyclists to put a foot down when coming to a stop, just as a complete stop does not require motorists to open their car doors and put a foot down when coming to a stop. All that’s required is that the cyclist ceases forward momentum long enough to observe approaching traffic, and appraise the need to yield the right of way to any vehicle or pedestrian who has the right of way, before proceeding again.
So yes, the accusation is largely true. What’s remarkable about the accusation, however, is that it applies to motorists as well. Most motorists do not come to a complete stop either. Instead, they “slow and roll”—they slow down, and if they have the right of way, they roll through the stop sign without stopping. That is, most motorists do the exact same thing that they say irks them the most about cyclists.
Of course, it’s ridiculous for scofflaws of one stripe to point accusatory fingers at scofflaws of another stripe, so why do they do it? Because it allows them to rationalize their own beliefs and behaviors. When a driver says that, “cyclists don’t stop at stop signs,” it’s invariably said in support of the driver’s real argument—implicit or explicit—that cyclists don’t belong on the road. One could well point out that, by that standard, motorists don’t belong on the road either, a logical conclusion that escapes the motorists pointing accusatory fingers at scofflaw cyclists, because they’re offering up a rationale for their beliefs and behavior, rather than a rational argument.
This suggestion that discrimination against cyclists is justified by their failure to observe stop signs can be heard just about everywhere—everywhere except Idaho, that is, where it has been legal for over a quarter of a century now for cyclists to “slow and roll” through stop signs. Idaho’s law allows cyclists to legally treat stop signs as yield signs (and to treat red lights as stop signs). For this reason, it is often referred to as “Stop as Yield.” Because this common-but-usually-illegal practice is legal in Idaho, we don’t hear the same justifications for discrimination against cyclists coming from that state. Instead, it’s understood—and accepted—that cyclists may legally treat stop signs as yield signs. Of course, Idaho has its own share of scofflaw cyclists who attempt to push the envelope by blowing through stop signs and red lights; they still arouse the ire of anybody who has the misfortune of encountering them on the roads, and Idaho motorists are as adept at failing to yield the right of way (and killing cyclists) as drivers in other states, so tensions between cyclists and motorists continue to simmer in Idaho, as elsewhere.
Despite those tensions, in Idaho the argument has shifted from “those cyclists don’t stop at stop signs” to “those cyclists don’t yield the right of way.” And that is exactly where the argument belongs. As Andy Thornley of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition observes, rampant “right of way theft” is the real issue that must be addressed amongst all road users.
This is a sensible shift in focus, especially if we ask ourselves “what are laws for?” Are laws just rules that we established simply for the sake of obeying the rule? Or do laws serve some other purpose? I would argue that laws in fact should serve the larger purpose of promoting the public good. In the case of traffic laws, one of the public goods the law promotes is public safety. Therefore, laws addressing right of way theft are in keeping with the goal of promoting public safety, while laws that penalize cyclists for not stopping at stop signs do not add any additional layer of safety.
To understand why, consider two scenarios: In one, a cyclist approaches a stop sign, comes to a complete stop, observes approaching traffic and appraises the need to yield, before proceeding into the intersection. In the other, a cyclist approaches a stop sign, slows, observes approaching traffic and appraises the need to yield, before proceeding into the intersection. If both cyclists are observing their duty to yield to approaching traffic, does it really matter that the second cyclist rolled through, rather than coming to a complete stop? If we are fixated on requiring cyclists to stop at intersections, then yes, it will probably matter to us that the second cyclist did not come to a complete stop. But if we are focused instead on road safety, then in the larger scheme of things, it really shouldn’t matter that the second cyclist was slowing and observing his duty to yield the right of way, rather than on his duty to come to a complete stop, as the first cyclist did. If the stop sign were a yield sign, would we be as outraged if the cyclist rolled through the yield sign, after yielding the right of way? Of course not.
And yet, the stop sign is not a yield sign—it’s a “Stop” sign, a point that brings us to the efforts to bring an Idaho-style stop as yield law to other states. Under a “stop as yield” law, at intersections controlled by stop signs, cyclists would still be required to yield to vehicles (and pedestrians) that have the right of way, just as they are now. Cyclists who fail to yield the right of way would still be in violation of the law, and would still be subject to citation, just as they are now. What would change would be the requirement that cyclists must stop at a stop sign, even when there are no approaching vehicles or pedestrians with the right of way. In these situations, cyclists would be allowed to proceed cautiously through the intersection, just as they would at an intersection controlled by a yield sign. In fact, for cyclists, the stop sign would have the same legal effect as a yield sign.
By altering the legal duties of cyclists at stop signs, we would be encouraging several positive effects, while continuing to penalize negative behavior. Cyclists would be empowered to focus on safety, without the distracting fear of incurring legal penalties for harmless violations of the law. Similarly, changing the legal duties of cyclists would provide direction to law enforcement to focus their attention where it belongs—on unsafe cyclists (and motorists). Yielding would be safe, and legal. Failure to yield would continue to be unsafe, and illegal, as it should be.
Safety-conscious cyclists who yield at intersections but otherwise do not come to a complete stop would be brought back within the law. Bringing cyclists back within the law would encourage respect for the law, because the laws would be perceived as sensible.
This is somewhat analogous to legal efforts to bring cyclists within the law in the late 19th century, by granting them all of the rights and duties applicable to other vehicle operators. Some might argue that this situation is not the same, because stop as yield laws create different rights and duties for cyclists. However, the reality is that the law already differentiates between different users of the road. For example, pedestrians are not required to stop at stop signs, cyclists are often required to ride near the right side of the road, and motorists are required to be licensed and insured. And in fact, the law has differentiated between different users of the road, almost from the moment cyclists were first brought into the law. Under New York City’s Traffic Code of 1897, pedestrians always had the right of way, cyclists were required to signal their intent to pass with a bell, and horses had a speed limit of five miles per hour, while cyclists were allowed a higher limit of eight miles per hour. So acknowledging that bicycles are different from automobiles, and thus have different needs, as the Bicycle Transportation Alliance’s Scott Bricker argues, has both historical and contemporary precedent, and may indeed be the cognitive shift we need to make in order to improve cycling conditions.
As I noted in A Stop Sign Solution, one of the benefits of a stop as yield law is that it actually increases cyclist safety. Currently, cyclists must choose between routes that are more efficient but less safe due to higher traffic volumes, and routes that are more safe, but less efficient due to the presence of numerous stop signs. Ironically, while stop signs make lesser-traveled streets safer by encouraging automobile traffic to use the less-restricted arterials, they also function as infrastructure barriers to cycling. Allowing cyclists to treat stop signs as yield signs empowers them to legally make the safer routes more efficient.
And it’s not just cyclists who benefit. All of society enjoys the positive social benefits that cycling brings, from improved public health, to improved air quality and fewer emissions of greenhouse gases, to fewer traffic fatalities, less traffic congestion, and less wear and tear on our road infrastructure. When cycling is supported, it creates a positive feedback loop—as more people cycle, the roads become safer for everybody, and as the roads become safer, more people choose to ride. Thus, laws that support cycling promote the public good—and isn’t that what laws are really for?
(Research and drafting provided by Rick Bernardi, J.D.)
This article, Making Better Laws, was originally published on Bicycling on September 1, 2009.