Bikes Are Not Cars: Why California Needs an “Idaho Stop” Law

If you follow just about any major media coverage of street etiquette and safety, by now you’ve probably seen a piece vilifying people on bikes for “running” stop signs. But hop on a bike yourself, and you’ll start to see why safely rolling and yielding at stop signs makes sense.

The stop sign law in effect in almost every state has a fundamental flaw: It assumes that bicycles are just like cars, creating the unrealistic expectation that someone on a bike should make a full stop at every stop sign, even when there are plainly no cars or pedestrians nearby.

The problem with this is that it effectively criminalizes the way that people naturally negotiate stop sign intersections on a bike: by slowing, checking for traffic, and being prepared to yield to others. Try the experiment a million times, and you’ll get the same results: everyone, including SF police officers (and probably the lawmakers themselves), will negotiate this way.

The reason behind this is, basically, that operating a 30-pound bicycle is quite different from driving a multi-ton, motorized vehicle. A bicycle doesn’t encase the user in a bulky metal frame that hinders vision. Bicycles can also stop on a dime compared to cars. It’s for these reasons that when driving a car, the care needed to avoid a crash is drastically higher.

To reflect this reality, Idaho amended its stop sign law to allow bicycle riders to treat stop signs as yield signs. This means that while a bicycle rider still can’t blow through stop signs or violate anyone’s right-of-way — which is dangerous and should be enforced — they are allowed to slow down, check for traffic, and proceed legally. The law has clarified expectations between road users, and, as the above video (produced by Spencer Boomhower in support of an effort in Oregon to pass an Idaho-style law) notes, it has a 30-year track record.

SFPD demonstrates effective practice of the Idaho stop sign law.

Meanwhile, the current law in California and all other states leads to an unproductive fixation on this behavior. While more serious safety issues go neglected by SF’s police department, people on bikes are arbitrarily fined hundreds of dollars for using a safe, common practice that most people are used to, filling courts with frivolous cases. People are then discouraged from riding bikes at all, or castigated by reporters like KRON’s Stanley Roberts.

Bike advocates have pushed to change California’s law, but the hurdles are enormous. Instead, the SF Bicycle Coalition urges the SFPD to focus its limited resources “on those known areas where people are being hit and injured and the most dangerous behaviors, rather than reacting to media or political pressure,” said Executive Director Leah Shahum. “If the enforcement were based on the data of actual problems, we would see greater benefit to public safety for all road users.”

While bicycle stop sign violations aren’t even on the map as a frequent cause of crashes, 96 percent of the 899 pedestrians injured in 2011 were hit by car drivers. That’s about three a day. The most common cause of pedestrian injuries in San Francisco is failure to yield by motorists (42 percent of all cases). According to SFPD data, some of the intersections with the highest number of injuries to pedestrians and bicyclists in 2011 were Market Street and Octavia Boulevard (a freeway ramp), Divisadero and Oak Streets, and Market at Fifth, Sixth, and Valencia Streets. Robert Yegge, the only bicycle rider killed this year, was struck by a truck driver who failed to yield at Oak and Franklin Streets.

Despite all this, you could still be sure to find police officers stinging bicycle riders on the Wiggle this week to enforce a law they won’t even follow themselves.

“The reality is that the vast majority of people bicycling and driving are doing so responsibly,” said Shahum. “We do need a smarter, more data-driven strategy toward improving that bad behavior among some that garners so much public attention. And the city needs to update its enforcement strategy — along with policies and infrastructure — in order to actually encourage safe behavior.”

Note: KRON 4’s Stanley Roberts got in touch with Streetsblog and said he sticks by his letter-of-the-law approach: “Change the law, and I won’t have to do the segment.”

  • kexiao

    tinyurl.com/cyk9xz2

  • Flueg

    stop signs are needless in most of cases. I am from Europe and we commonly have yield instead of stop signs. It works fine (accidents are less per capita and per vehicle compared to the US). It is better for the environment since most pollutants are released when you start driving and it does not impede traffic flow as much as all these ridiculous stop signs do. This permanent stop-and-go is a pain in the ass – for environment, traffic and drivers!

  • Twexman

    Three other important considerations:

    1) It takes considerably more effort to get your speed up on a bike after stopping then it does to press the gas peddle
    2) Bike are less threatening to drivers and pedestrians as they are not two tons of steel, glass and plastic being propelled forward by a hundreds of horsepower. 
    3) Bike riders have to be considerably more defensive than a car because they will always loose in an accident.

  • Jpc4559

    Night sticks are the prefered weapon. Bike Boy.

  • alteredstory

    In addition to the comments made, I would also add that bicycles have worse balance when starting from a dead stop, and acceleration is slower. That means that suddenly you are simultaneously doubling the amount of time it takes to get through the intersection (more dangerous) and reducing the cyclist’s ability to react to the unexpected (more dangerous). 

    The Idaho Stop scenario IS about safety. It is quite simply safer to allow a bicyclist, especially when the stop sign is at a road with NO stop sign, to move into or across the flow of traffic more quickly and with better control. 

  • Bruce Gregory

    What happened at the end of the video? Did they taze or baton her?

  • JG

    As a pedestrian, sometime cyclist and OG the behavior of bicyclists at stop signs and red lights, especially during commute hours, scares me. As a pedestrian, all vehicles are traffic : bikes, motorbikes, cars, MUNI, trucks, even skateboards, the whole lot. They are all threats to my safety as a pedestrian. The damage that can be sustained by being hit by a 30 lb. bike with a 100+ lb rider on it is dependent on its momentum. Simple physics tells one that. (Do the math on the force exerted by a 130 lb object traveling at 10mph.) Less threatening is still threatening; less damage is still damage; less injury is still injury; especially to older citizens. Walking into a crosswalk where there is a stop sign or stoplight (red) the pedestrian makes the assumption, based on the law, that traffic will stop. This isn’t possible given the observed and daily behavior of cyclists on San Francisco’s streets. Seeing groups on cyclists riding, at speed, through stop signs and across crosswalks without regard to OGs and others, who in California have the right of way (see Section 21950 of the CA vehicle code), is frightening. Rolling through stop signs and red lights is, at best, bad behavior by anyone piloting a vehicle. Of concern too is cyclists and motorists not stopping for each other and yielding proper right of way to each other. That’s dangerous for everyone. Cyclists and motorists are ALL traffic and ALL of them should obey the law. The correct view is to ALWAYS choose the safest course. Stop means stop. One stops, looks, then proceeds safely.

  • Kind of like:
    – “Bicyclists never stop at stop signs.”
    – “Dude. They stop all the time.”
    – “I only count the ones that don’t stop.”

  • JG

    You’re missing the point.
    What is safest?
    Answer : All vehicles stopping and obeying the law.
    Simple, huh?

  • “Take your turn and don’t run over the pedestrians” is equally safe, and super simple. There’s nothing in there about stopping.

  • JG

    Trusting the judgement of someone whose intent is not to stop? Simply because their momentum may be slowed? Again: what is safest?…you expect too much trust and current law says that cyclists must stop.

  • Kyle Birch

    no, no, no, and no. An Idaho stop law says a cyclist is required to obey the RIGHT OF WAY. What you describe in the first paragraph is illegal on the part of the cyclists even in Idaho. Bicyclists are required by law to obey the right-of-way. When cyclists HAVE the right of way, they aren’t required to stop at the stop sign, but proceed cautiosly.

  • Kyle Birch

    at any rate, cyclists are more capable at maneuvering and avoiding accidents in intersections more than any other vehicle. Stopping? maybe not, but we are smaller and we see and hear things sooner than anyone else. We can avoid things by flitering, riding alongside tight and small places, and by even riding up on the sidewalk if it means avoiding getting hit by a motorist. We have options to avoid accidents motorists just don’t have.

  • Kyle Birch

    I don’t think cyclists have incentives to break the Idaho stop law, because breaking the Idaho stop law means not yielding at all to drivers who have the right-of-way. For cyclists, more than anyone else on the road, this means risking imminent death. This is so very darwinian. If you are smart enough to not do something stupid, then you will yield the right of way. If you are too stupid to, then you surely will find SOME way to get yourself killed, idaho law or no Idaho law. That kind of stupidity has its way of extending into other areas of a person’s life.

    not only that, but the statistics are clear that the Idaho stop law doesn’t make cycling more dangerous. If the statistics changed at all, it made cycling safer, statistically. Check the facts.

  • IdahoRes

    As an Idaho resident I have to warn you against embracing this set of rules. You may think that it is about saving time when there are no hazards around, but here it has been translated by cyclists as a permanent right of way. They do not stop. They do not look. They do not appear to have any concern for their own safety. Is that vehicle turning right at a red light? Don’t worry about it! Pass them on the right, Is there a pedestrian entering that crosswalk? No problem! They’ll move. It’s terrifying and dangerous.

  • TLock

    The problem is that people reading this article evidently don’t know what yield means. It is black and white. I agree with you in supporting “stop means yield for human powered vehicles”.

  • TLock

    Oh my god, you do not know what ‘Yield’ or ‘Right of Way’ mean, and therefor cannot understand the Idaho Stop Law.

  • TLock

    That sucks. Make sure you throw your weight backward and downward when you brake hard on the front and rear simultaneously. A bike should be able to stop in shorter distance than a car.

  • mckillio

    Then they’re not abiding by the law, which is a separate issue.

  • mckillio

    I had no idea that’s what those are for, thanks!

  • jms_mcrae76

    This makes sense in rural and suburban areas but not in heavy traffic, multiple vehicle zones e.g. busy city neighborhoods. This is where this law becomes a mess and endangers cyclists, pedestrians and even drivers. Introduce it everywhere but ban it in heavy traffic zones. Simple.

  • snarkylarky

    way to throw out the most ridiculous ‘statement’ about ALL cyclists…this is simply untrue and you know it. I am a cyclist, I value my life and I LOOK at every light and stop sign, even when I have a green light!