Sup. Breed Backs Idaho’s Common-Sense Law: Let Bikes Yield at Stop Signs

Updated at 1:04 p.m. with comments from Dave Snyder of the California Bicycle Coalition.

Supervisor London Breed has come out as the first known elected official in San Francisco to publicly support a sensible change to California traffic law: allowing people on bikes to treat stop signs as yield signs.

Supervisor Breed rides the Wiggle with the SF Bicycle Coalition's Noah Budnick (right) and SFMTA Director Ed Reiskin after a recent celebration of the Fell and Oak bike lanes. Photo: SFBC/Flickr
Supervisor Breed rides the Wiggle with the SF Bicycle Coalition’s Noah Budnick (right) and SFMTA Director Ed Reiskin after a recent celebration of the Fell and Oak bike lanes. Photo: SFBC/Flickr

Breed voiced her position today in today’s deftly-crafted article by SF Examiner reporter Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez on changing the stop sign law:

“I think that’s how it should be,” she said, when asked if she supported San Francisco introducing Idaho-style rolling stops. “A bicycle is not a car, and they should be handled differently.”

Of rolling stops, she said, “On my bicycle, that’s what I do.”

“She’s speaking common sense,” said Dave Snyder, executive director of the California Bicycle Coalition, and former head of the SF Bicycle Coalition.

Breed’s District 5 includes some of the city’s busiest bike routes like the Wiggle and Page Street, where two recent captains at SFPD’s Park Station have called for letter-of-the-law crackdowns on bike violations at stop signs. They aren’t a major cause of injuries, and the practice is even followed by officers biking in the district.

Breed’s views on bicycling issues have evolved since 2013, when she tweeted that “the biggest obstacle to creating safer streets for bicycling” was “the bad behavior of some bicyclist” [sic]. She later clarified that she meant that the perception of bad bicycling behavior made it “harder to win public and political support” for bike safety improvements on the streets.

The complaints that drive SFPD’s bike crackdowns largely result from unrealistic expectations set by a strict interpretation of the state stop sign law, which treats 30-pound bikes the same as three-ton motor vehicles. The vast majority of people on bikes already negotiate stop signs safely by slowing, looking, and being prepared to yield when others have the right of way.

Allowing rolling stops on bikes “would normalize, and legalize, behavior people are doing safely anyway,” Morgan Fitzgibbons of the Wigg Party told the Examiner. The Wigg Party plans to hold a “Wiggle stop-in” this evening to demonstrate the absurdity of the current stop sign law by rallying riders to make full stops at every sign.

Idaho changed its stop sign law in 1982 to clear a backup of frivolous citations filling its courts. A personal injury lawyer told the Examiner he’s “never seen a single incident of injury for a cyclist arising from the stop as yield law” in 20 years. “Not one.” Boise Police Department Cpl. Tom Shuler, a bike officer for 16 years, added: “If you rode a bicycle in Idaho, you’d say, ‘Wait, the rest of the world doesn’t do this? This is ridiculous!’”

It’s too early to say if Breed’s bold endorsement could build support for California to overcome the politically daunting hurdle of adopt Idaho’s stop sign law (Snyder is “doubtful it’s worth trying”). Elected officials fear being seen as defenders of dangerous scofflaws — an understandable concern, given the vitriolic rhetoric over the issue (a woman at a recent Park Station meeting said, “Shoot the bicyclists”).

But the view of people on bikes as out-of-control deviants, which is entrenched in the SFPD, can be attributed to a system of ill-conceived laws and poorly-designed streets that criminalize the way everyday people want to get around by bike.

Here and now in SF, leaders at City Hall can have an immediate impact on making streets safer by holding police to smart policies already in place. It’s time for Mayor Ed Lee and the Board of Supervisors to call on the SFPD to stop wasting limited enforcement resources in an attempt to force compliance with an impractical law, and instead fulfill its pledge to focus on the dangerous driving behaviors that result in unacceptable traffic violence every day.

The SFPD “has the authority to exercise discretion in its enforcement of the law, as it does in many cases,” said Snyder. “If [SFPD Chief Greg Suhr] and Mayor Lee were more interested in safety than in letting their officers get their kicks shooting fish in a barrel, they would adopt that philosophy.”

  • jd_x

    Actually, I’ve always phrased it as: “Bicyclists can treat stop signs as yield signs and red lights as stop signs” with the reminder that yielding means they have to give way to pedestrians.

  • Mr T

    If you break the law and you’re dumb enough to get caught – you pay. Simple logic. The cyclist who was crying about getting caught breaking the law is obviously a spoiled brat. If you can’t play by the rules go to East Bay.

    I’m amazed by the large number of cyclists who think they can pass on the right side of cars in a line of traffic, only to punch/hit/scream at drivers and their cars because the cyclist was suddenly “cut off”.

    Thanks for sharing Dave!

  • SF Guest

    @Andy Chow: your suggestion to start a pilot program to legalize rolling stops is analogous to legalizing pedestrians to jaywalk. While some are able to do it without increasing safety risks to others and themselves there are those who would pose a safety hazard to others and themselves.

    Traffic laws are intended to apply to everyone on this premise.

  • murphstahoe

    Traffic laws have not been handed down by the lord himself. They are rules we have adopted because whomever was in charge decided they were appropriate. History is littered with laws that have been put in place that were found, in retrospect, to be poorly considered.

  • murphstahoe

    Why are you amazed by this? If you make a right turn, you must do so from the right side of the lane, having merged over there when safe. If someone screws up and as a result of that I get hit, damn straight I’m going to be angry. Because you know – “If you break the law and you’re dumb enough to get caught – you pay”

  • SF Guest

    I agree traffic laws are not always written perfectly, but neither is Vision Zero. To borrow a quote from Dirty Harry from Magnum Force while addressing vigilante cops “until some changes come along that make sense I’m going to follow and uphold the law.”

  • murphstahoe

    Andy suggests some changes, and you basically said we shouldn’t do so because you know, the law.

  • SF Guest

    I don’t agree with the proposed change from the perspective safety will be compromised for those cyclists who roll through stop signs in an unsafe manner.

    If rolling stops are legalized, then jaywalking should be legalized for the same reason.

  • murphstahoe

    I don’t think you understand the proposed change if you think “safety will be compromised for those cyclists who roll through stop signs in an unsafe manner”

    The concept of “Yield” is pretty well established.

  • jd_x

    “If rolling stops are legalized, then jaywalking should be legalized for the same reason.”

    Agreed. And I bet most cyclists would agree as well. Assuming a traffic-calmed street, i.e only two narrow lanes of cars going 20 mph or less, protected bicycle lanes, daylighted intersections, and adequate sidewalks, then there is absolutely nothing wrong with pedestrians jaywalking as long as, just like with bicyclists and the Idaho Stop rule, they yield to the traffic they are crossing first.

    Jaywalking and bicycling being relegated to the gutters of the road were both part of the same movement by automobile companies to take streets away from people and give them over to cars early in the 20th century.

  • spencerfleury

    Jaywalking was not made illegal to protect pedestrians. It was made illegal to enhance the convenience of drivers in an era when driving was a new thing. This was done at the behest of car companies, who put a great deal of effort into coining and popularizing the phrase “jaywalking” (“jay” being a term of art at the time for an idiot or backwards person).

    So perhaps your comparison is apt, but not for the reasons you probably think.

  • spencerfleury

    “Are they as self-centered/self-absorbed there as here?”

    How would you suggest measuring self-absorption in a way that would enable us to objectively compare?

  • GarySFBCN

    There are survey tools to determine such things a civility (I think it is called a civility index) relative anger, general rudeness, etc. As for self-absorption, I’m not sure – I think that would need agree-upon characteristics and behaviors, methods of measuring and quantifying those characteristics and behaviors and then documenting via dedicated direct observation. And that too has probably been done – unlike population-based behavioral surveys for anger, stress and attitudes, I’ve never had the need to use ‘self-absorption’ data for analysis, so I’d have to research those tools.

  • Andy Chow

    According to the law, it is also illegal to cross the street when there’s a flashing red hand sign. Now many intersections have the countdown signal. If you’re a healthy person and only needs 10 seconds to cross the street, you’re violating the law if you proceed at a flashing red hand counting down at 12 seconds, even though you will be on the sidewalk when the lights change.

    So I see the requirement for bicycles to fully stop is the same as this, insensitive, impractical, and not really necessary. Rare crackdowns based on strict enforcement essentially amounts to harassment, no different than failing to signal when driving which if you of a certain race you will be more likely to be pulled over than others.

  • caryl

    But couldn’t the same thing be said about left turns or a host of other maneuvers that require personal judgment about what is safe? Most drivers can make left turns without increasing safety risks to others or themselves, but the fact that plenty of people are killed by unsafe left turns suggests that there are a significant number who do pose a safety hazard. Yet, we haven’t outlawed left turns. How would it be any different to allow people on bikes to make similar judgments about whether they need to stop at an intersection? The consequences of a mistake are far less deadly than a poorly judged left turn.

    I also agree with allowing pedestrians to use their own judgment about when certain behaviors are safe. They have a lot to lose if they make a mistake, so I think most make reasonably good judgments, even when those judgments aren’t technically legal. For example, I routinely “jaywalk” across Mission at Van Ness because there is only a nano-second of a walk signal and then a 32-second countdown (and a ridiculously long wait for the next nano-second of a walk signal). How much time I have on the countdown determines how quickly I walk, but I’m always on the other side before the countdown ends. It’s against the law, but I fail to see how that poses a safety hazard to anyone, even me. Sure, some people will (and do) make poor decisions, but again, that’s true for left turns too, so I’m not sure I buy the argument that it’s all about safety. Seems to me that many of our pedestrians laws simply make it less convenient for law-abiding people to walk in this city – they don’t seem to have much to do with safety at all.

  • Donovan Lacy

    Another fun fact. Guess which city has 3 times the population density as San Francisco. Give up? It’s Paris!

    6633 people/km² – San Francisco
    vs
    20700 people/km² – Paris

  • Lego

    JAYWALKING IS LEGAL in California in many circumstances. Here’s the law: 21955 CVC – Crossing Between Controlled Intersections – Between adjacent intersections controlled by traffic control signal devices or by police officers, pedestrians shall not cross the roadway at any place except in a crosswalk.

  • tommy t

    That’s a great idea. Another thing I would add to make the law change more palatable and safe would be that bicyclists may only proceed through a red light after stopping IF the speed limit is 35 or less…and/or IF the street is less than 75′ wide. Something like that.

  • Donovan Lacy

    I like that idea, particularly since the speed limit for most San Francisco streets is between 25 mph and 35 mph.

  • SF Guest

    You make some interesting supposition points here (along with feedback from others), and I apologize for not having the time to review it and respond. (Work before pleasure)

  • Cynara2

    In other words you never stop.

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