From Urban Velo
Pulling Out The Stops
How a nearly 30-year-old Idaho law that permits bicyclists to sometimes roll through stop signs is gaining interest across the country.
By David Hoffman
In 1982 the Idaho legislature passed a law that allows bicyclists to in some cases treat stop signs as though they were yield signs. Under this law, permitting that there were no vehicles at the intersection, cyclists would perform a rolling stop. In addition, bicyclists are permitted to treat a red light at an intersection with no other traffic as a stop sign—first coming to a complete stop and then proceeding forward. Now known as the “Idaho Stop Law” or the “Stop as Yield” to many people, both legislators and advocates alike are beginning to explore the possibility of passing a similar law in their state. Unsurprisingly, this law generates considerable controversy—even among some bicycle advocates.
The tension between motorists and bicyclists is growing as more and more bicyclists are taking to the streets. Efficient bicycling relies on the momentum generated by the bicyclist to keep moving forward, and as anyone who has ridden a bike knows, stopping breaks momentum and forces the rider to work harder to regain the lost movement. This simple law of physics encourages most bicyclists to perform “rolling stops” at most stop signs—scanning left and right to make sure that there is no competing traffic, and then proceeding forward without letting the bike come to a complete stop. This behavior, or worse—blowing through a stop sign without even slowing—is observed by motorists, and there are few things that make motorists angrier when they share the road with bicyclists. Tensions rise.The Debate
Supporters of the Idaho Stop Law note that laws are enacted to meet a need; in the case of stop signs and stop lights, the regulation of traffic through intersections. Additionally, laws can and do change over the years. Prohibition (the banning of the manufacture, sale, and consumption of alcohol) became the law in the United States in 1919 by way of the Eighteenth Amendment to the US Constitution.
It was repealed 14 years later by the passing of the Twenty-first Amendment. Prohibition didn’t mean that people stopped drinking; it only meant that it became an illegal activity to do so. The ban on drinking helped to grow the reach and influence of organized crime, and it became apparent that simply legislating a ban on drinking would not stop the activity.
Consider the fact that stop signs first appeared in the United States in 1915, more than 20 years after the introduction of the automobile. Were they introduced because horses had suddenly become faster or bicycles too numerous? (The bike boom of the 1890’s had many more bikes on the road than in 1915). No. The reason for the introduction of the stop sign was that automobiles with limited visibility, greater speed, and greater mass had become a hazard to other roadway users at uncontrolled intersections. In fact, the core issue with the Idaho Stop Law is that it essentially modifies a traffic code that has been designed to regulate and control motor vehicles.
Opponents of the Idaho Stop Law fall in to two main camps. The first is comprised largely of motorists that are already frustrated with bicyclist behavior on the road (but seem to conveniently overlook the fact that automobiles routinely drive faster than the posted speed limit, fail to give the right of way, or come to a complete stop at stop signs). These people feel as though a modification to the current stop sign law will further embolden bicyclists to flaunt traffic laws by blowing through stop signs and “hiding behind” the new law. In fact, the law is quite explicitabout when a cyclist may treat a stop sign as a yield (see sidebar). Bicyclists would not be able to blow through red lights, either. At stoplight-controlled intersections a bicyclist would have to come to a stop before proceeding through a red light, and only then if no other traffic had the right of way.
The second group of opponents is made up of vehicular cyclists (see John Forrester’s book, Effective Cycling, currently in the 6th Edition) who believe that any situation in which a bicycle has special privileges will alienate motor vehicle drivers and runs counter to the goal of bicyclists having an equal share of the road. In many cases, Vehicular Cyclists work directly with state Departments of Transportation and/or legislators to prevent laws that would give bicyclists special rights. It is important to note here that “vehicular cycling” on the road is a highly effective and widely recognized method of bicycling. The League of American Bicyclists (www.bikeleague.org) bases its League Certified Instructor (LCI) courses on John Forrester’s work, and a modified version of his work has been adopted in Canada by CAN-BIKE (www.canbike.net).
Why Stop As Yield Is So Attractive And Some Considerations
Most cyclists who hear about the Idaho Stop Law embrace the idea without hesitation. The reason is simple: While a great number of bicyclists do roll through stop signs, it removes the stigma attached with this behavior. The Idaho Stop Law helps to preserve cyclist momentum through an intersection, an area that is traditionally high in conflicts, thus providing more maneuvering capability. It does not prevent bicyclists from coming to a full stop, or behaving as a vehicular cyclist.
Opponents and skeptics to the Idaho Stop Law point out that Idaho isn’t known for crowded and dense metropolitan areas. Boise isn’t New York City, let alone the rest of the state. However, statistics from Idaho show that there has been no increase in crashes related to this law. Even Idaho has metropolitan areas; the statistics would seem to suggest that at the very worst, the stop as yield option would work well in the majority of low traffic secondary routes that most bicyclists favor.
Efforts Outside Of IdahoIt is possible that the path to adoption of the Idaho Stop Law outside of Idaho will be through a limited test area where it can be proven that the Idaho Stop is a safe and efficient change to the motor vehicle code. This could be achieved through a legislated pilot program in several areas similar to the green bike boxes in Portland, OR or shared use lane markings (sharrows) that saw extensive testing in San Francisco before being widely adopted.
The idea of enacting the Idaho Stop in other states is gaining steam. In an effort that began in 2006, great progress was made towards passing legislation in Oregon earlier this year. The effort ultimately did not carry, and there is speculation that advocates may try again for a 2011 legislative session.
In 2008 members of the Bicycle Advisory Committee for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (serving the nine County region around the San Francisco Bay Area) considered recommending the Idaho Stop legislation. This proposal would eventually have made its way to state level legislation. State-level advocates have also considered the idea.
In 2008 Minnesota introduced Idaho Stop legislation, and then again this year. Arizona and Montana also introduced Idaho Stop legislation this year. None of these efforts has yet to pass, but that doesn’t mean that advocates and legislators aren’t working on it. Surely in addition to these states, others are considering the legislation. The issue will continue to surface in the form of legislation and debate for years to come. Stay tuned; yield could be the new stop.
The Idaho Stop Law
THE LETTER OF THE LAW
Idaho Statutes Title 49 (Vehicle Code), Chapter 7,
Section 720 states:
49-720. STOPPING—TURN AND STOP SIGNALS.
(1) A person operating a bicycle or humanpowered
vehicle approaching a stop sign shall slow
down and, if required for safety, stop before entering
the intersection. After slowing to a reasonable speed
or stopping, the person shall yield the right-of-way
to any vehicle in the intersection or approaching on
another highway so closely as to constitute an immediate
hazard during the time the person is moving
across or within the intersection or junction of highways,
except that a person after slowing to a reasonable
speed and yielding the right-of-way if required,
may cautiously make a turn or proceed through the
intersection without stopping.
(2) A person operating a bicycle or human-powered
vehicle approaching a steady red traffic control
light shall stop before entering the intersection and
shall yield to all other traffic. Once the person has
yielded, he may proceed through the steady red light
with caution. Provided however, that a person after
slowing to a reasonable speed and yielding the rightof-
way if required, may cautiously make a right-hand
turn. A left-hand turn onto a one-way highway may
be made on a red light after stopping and yielding to
(3) A person riding a bicycle shall comply with the
provisions of section 49-643, Idaho Code.
(4) A signal of intention to turn right or left shall
be given during not less than the last one hundred
(100) feet traveled by the bicycle before turning, provided
that a signal by hand and arm need not be given
if the hand is needed in the control or operation of