A variation of what’s commonly known as the “Idaho stop” – the law that allows bicyclists in that state to treat a stop sign as a yield sign – may soon become legal in California.
The California State Legislature will consider a bipartisan bill, AB 1103, in January that would permit bicyclists to treat stop signs as yields.
But it’s not exactly like the Idaho stop. That law defines the rules for stop signs and red lights slightly differently for a bike than for a motor vehicle. First, a cyclist may treat a stop sign as a yield sign: yield to anyone who has the right of way but not necessarily come to a complete stop. Second, a cyclist may treat a red light as a stop sign: proceed through a red light after coming to a complete stop if the coast is clear. These laws have been in place since 1982. Bicycle collisions decreased by 14.5 percent after they took effect, and today Boise has fewer bike crashes than comparable California cities.
AB 1103 does not include the second part of the Idaho law.
Regardless, every cycling organization I am aware of supports the California bill. However, there also is a lot of organized opposition to it.
The intent of the law is to allow a cyclist to clear an intersection more quickly, increasing his or her safety and facilitating smooth motor vehicle flow, by acknowledging the physical differences between riding a bike and driving a car. The counterarguments are fairness (cyclists should follow the same rules as everyone else) and safety (fear that cyclists will use the law as an excuse for blowing through intersections dangerously).
Pros of yielding
I’d like to explain why this change would be a good thing from a cyclist’s perspective.
When you stop a car, you remove your foot from the gas pedal and put it on the brake for a few seconds, then you reverse the process. A manual gearshift complicates the process, but simple tasks control most of the work.
To completely stop a bike, you have to do multiple things, all of which compete for your attention. First, you have to downshift. You can’t do this while stopped, so you must do it while slowing down. If you stop too quickly while downshifting, the chain can catch between gears or, worse, fall off, making it impossible to pedal.
Second, after stopping, you must remove your foot from the pedal and put it on the ground or you will fall over. Reversing the process has its perils, as it can take two to three tries to re-engage the pedal if you are using cleats; this can be tricky for even the most experienced cyclist. And for a short period, you are wobbling while riding with one leg, and restarting can be difficult or even impossible going uphill.
Even doing this smoothly, a car can easily overtake you while you execute these steps; a car can decelerate and accelerate faster than a bike can. Conscientiously stopping can incentivize a following motorist to swerve around the cyclist and cut him or her off, giving the cyclist one more thing to worry about.
Statistically, the most dangerous location for a cyclist is at an intersection, and completely stopping and restarting competes for the cyclist’s attention when he or she should be especially vigilant, reduces control on restarting, results in occasional errors and increases the inconvenience to the motorists behind the cyclist.
When learning to ride a bicycle, you learn that momentum is your friend; it is nearly impossible to control a bike while stopped. People quickly figure this out, which I think is why one survey found that 95 percent of all cyclists go through stop signs without completely stopping, even those who are normally law abiding. Of course, the specifics vary with each intersection, but a cyclist slowing to 5-10 mph will generally have more time to scan the intersection than a motorist coming to a full, but brief, stop.
I fully understand the annoyance of drivers who see a cyclist blow through an intersection. However, that would remain an infraction.
Next month, I will address the counterarguments to the proposed legislation.