For a Bicyclist, a Stop Sign is a Suggestion


I’m going to plunge back into this argument with both feet – on the pedals. A recent article by Tom Babin in the Los Angeles Times suggests that laws requiring bicyclists to come to a complete stop at a stop sign, as cars do, should be amended. I agree.

We all do it anyway. I like to say to that I’m a conscientious bicyclist. I wear visible clothing. I use lights at night and hand signals to indicate upcoming turns. I ride as close to the side of the road as I safely can. But I’ve rolled through a thousand stop signs, and I’ll likely roll through a thousand more.

It’s legal to do this in Idaho. The “Idaho stop” law, adopted in 1982 and in force ever since without incident, allows bicyclists to treat stop signs as yield signs. But most jurisdictions are still hung up on the idea that bicyclists and cars should be treated identically under the law.

This means that bicyclists should come to a complete stop at all stop signs and red lights, as drivers of motor vehicles are required to do. It sounds fair, but in reality, the idea flies in the face of physics and common sense. Boise personal injury lawyer and bicycle activist Kurt Holzer recently wrote on his blog (as quoted in the Times story) that he has “never seen a car versus bike collision or a bike versus pedestrian collision that was attributable to road users following the stop-as-yield statute.”

As one commentator on a Facebook site devoted to cycling issues put it: “Adhering to the Idaho stop is how any rational person rides a bike.”

Should bicyclists be expected to ride in a way that promotes safety on the road for everyone? Obviously. It’s in our own self-interest to be courteous to our fellow users of the road. Most drivers of motor vehicles respect this.

But a bicycle is not a car. Coming to a complete stop means loss of momentum, and without an engine, all the energy on a bike comes from the human being riding it. On a bicycle, I am traveling slowly enough to gauge any danger at an intersection in plenty of time to react. The primary purpose of stop signs in most neighborhoods is to reduce the overall speed of traffic by not allowing cars to accelerate to dangerous speeds between them. Since bicycles travel much more slowly than cars, bicyclists rightly treat a stop sign as a warning rather than a requirement.

Operators of buses and trucks, an order of magnitude more massive than cars, are required to obey different regulations. Why should bicycles – an order of magnitude less massive, and therefore less dangerous – be different?

But there are motorists who want bicyclists off the road entirely. One of their repeated refrains is that bicyclists should get licenses and register their “vehicles” and pay excise taxes. I would have hated this as a kid. And it’s ridiculous, anyway. Like the calls to ticket bicyclists who roll through stop signs, this is a transparent attempt to reduce the number of bicyclists, in the mistaken belief that roads should be for the exclusive use of motorized vehicles.

Bicycles do no damage to the roads, which cyclists are already paying for through property and sales taxes. Only half the costs of roads are covered by fees and taxes directly levied on drivers. Bicyclists are already paying more than their fair share.

Besides, as I’ve pointed out before, the increased presence of bicyclists makes the roads safer for everyone. More bicycles make safer roads. Study after study bears this out. The most important effect of increased bicycle traffic is that it mitigates the behavior of drivers. When drivers get used to the idea that they will encounter bicyclists frequently, they slow down and drive with more awareness. How can that possibly be a bad thing?

But bicycle registration should be discouraged for another important reason: the idea tacitly discourages using a bicycle instead of a car. In this age of oil spills and fracking and human-induced climate change, we should all be looking for ways to live more lightly on the planet. One way is to reduce car ownership and car use.

A law requiring the registration and taxation of bikes is counter-productive. As Gordon Black, director of the Bicycle Coalition of Washington, told a Seattle news site: “We want as many drivers as possible to give up using their cars.”

Traffic laws should nudge – not shove, but nudge – responsible citizens in that direction.


Hank Garfield

About Hank Garfield

Hank's writing has appeared in San Diego Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Downeast, Bangor Metro, and elsewhere. He is the author of five published novels, and is now seeking a publisher for his recently-completed novel, A Sprauling Family Saga.