Should California Enact an “Idaho Stop” Law for Cyclists?


Oregon lawmakers have been engaged in a heated debate about enacting an "Idaho Stop" law, which would codify what most cyclists already do: treat stop signs as yield signs and red lights as stop signs.  The issue has come up before in Sacramento, but has never been so close to adoption.

SFBC Program Director Andy Thornley notes that the organizing hurdles would be enormous, that it would require a statewide campaign that few bicycle organizations are willing to waste political capital on, and that opponents like the California Highway Patrol would make passage of the law particularly difficult.

Locally SFBC would rather focus on enforcing laws that endanger the most vulnerable users, including when the violator is a cyclist.  In a letter (PDF) to SFPD Chief Fong, Thornley called these violations "right-of-way theft":

Not only do many bicyclist and pedestrian injuries and fatalities result from failure to yield right-of-way, but rampant uncited "right-of-way theft" by all road users (including bicyclists) nurtures a perception of anarchy and permissiveness, that "anything goes" on the streets, which in turn gives license to further misbehavior, ranging from simply discourteous to gravely dangerous. Motorists must take their turn and give way to bicyclists and pedestrians at intersections before turning, instead of bullying their way (consciously or distractedly) through the turn. Likewise, bicyclists must take their turn and yield the right-of-way to all users as appropriate, stopping for pedestrians and motorists and other cyclists alike.

This reflects the spirit of the code of conduct in Paris, where each user is responsible for the safety of the users who weigh less and are more vulnerable, so motorists look out for cyclists and pedestrians, cyclists look out for pedestrians, etc.  This is explained in this wonderful Streetfilm about the streets in Paris:

What do you think?  Is the de facto situation in San Francisco satisfactory or should a better law be devised?

  • Donovan b

    A sage and honest letter from Andy, one that envisions a much brighter future for cycling in SF. As someone who commutes daily by bike, I can attest to the pervasiveness of the lawless driver/rider. The situation is not hopeless and most of the time, I am gratified by the respect returned by motorists when a little is extended their way, and I am always surprised when another cyclist blows past me while I’m stopped waiting for a pedestrian to cross. That said, drivers are as or more likely to do the same thing, but I just feel we’ve a lot more in common with pedestrians than motorists and hope for better relations. Much better enforcement and a sustained public education campaign that’s on a scale that allows it to reach everyone from school children to commuters to messengers should be a priority for advocates and city officials alike.

  • Okay, snarky comment deleted, but it felt great to write them.

    What we’re going to need to see is a public health outcomes driven approach to enforcement. That means, figure out the relative rates of risk San Franciscans face on the streets, and enforce the law according to risk prevelence and degree.

    The cops have proven themselves too biased in favor of motorists to be trusted to enforce the law dispassionately and objectively. In cases like this, we need to impose management controls that have the cops record and report their traffic interventions and to have corrective controls in place that bring the cops’ enforcement patterns to the conform with the desired public health policy goals on a cop-by-cop basis.

    If the numbers showed that the rate of injury and death was 95% auto, 4% bike and 1% pedestrian, for instance, then any cop’s traffic tickets should reflect that percentage mix.

    As far as the Idaho law goes, shouldn’t it be possible to exempt all highways where CalTrans or the CHP holds jurisdiction and just have it apply to roads in incorporated areas, possibly with (an all too confusing) local opt-out?

    Now, if we could just get the enviro advocates to partner with poor folks and others on the business end of SFPD corruption to build a coalition that brings SFPD enforcement priorities in sync with the community’s…our work in passing Prop H back in 2003 will all be worthwhile.


  • Peter

    pursuing an end to the stop sign and red light injustice is worthwhile. we should decide what we want to happen, as a community, and then set about it.

    the biggest direct win is that we won’t get harassed by the police as much as we already are. this is probably especially for our non-white brothers and sisters.

    second, we get to have everyone stop implicitly and explicitly defending unjust laws. as matt taibbi said, it used to be a crime to teach a slave to read — similarly, drivers and some bikers would still like to call me lawless because i blow through stop signs and red lights on my bike. just to have these people stop whining would make pushing for this law change worth it.

    third, once the whining about stop sign and red light bike running goes away, we might actually get to shine the light a bit on where it really belongs – outlaw driver behavior. they’re the true danger on the streets, and right now they’re able to hide behind their little stop sign crying game.

    fine if we can’t pass it this year, but the education campaign should start this year, at least. pushing for a vote is the best way to push it into the public discourse.

  • “Should California Enact an “Idaho Stop” Law for Cyclists?”


  • I agree with the SFBC’s position that some kind of vulnerable users law is needed first. Once that’s in place there is no reason why every pedestrian advocate won’t join with cyclists to push an Idaho stop law through, and we’re valuable allies 🙂

  • Dan

    One comment about the movie: The cyclist behavior on display in Paris appears very un-American. Meaning: People are taking it easy in virtually all the shots we see and *NOT* trying to race down the street like they’re car drivers. That’s a challenge in the U.S. context.

    The Idaho stop rule would be great; but it would be even better if it went hand in hand with an effort to educate all users that the streets are to share. Yeah, I know — I have a dream.

  • We already have laws that say that the streets are to be shared. We have laws that say that it is illegal for a car to hit anyone anytime, that motorists must maintain control of their vehicles first and foremost. Can’t the vulnerable users law be practically derived from existing statute?

    The problem is that the SFPD is not enforcing these existing laws equitably because of their biases, given that 2/3 of them live in the suburbs and bring their car culture with them as they drive in to work across those bridges every day.

    Now, the SFBC has 10,000 members. The Police Commission has meetings where public comment is taken. The BAC and Board of Supervisors have meetings as well where a mobilized cyclist community could be deployed to change the way that the City does business.

    Enforcement is one big black hole in the livable streets movement that, if properly reformed, would do more to make the streets safer for cyclists and peds than any number of bike lanes or mid block crossings would. (The other big black hole rests with the DPW and dangerous street design and poor maintenance).

    But to mount a campaign that coerces the SFPD into doing our bidding requires a strategic capacity more nuanced and considered than “we want our 56 bike lanes now,” or “call your supervisors and support bike lanes,” as well as the political skills to bring together a real grassroots coalition of impacted communities.


  • Bjorn

    Idaho Style Stop Laws do not change the right of way laws so I don’t see how right of way theft has much to do with the Idaho Stop legislation. I agree that the hurdles are high to passing such a law but I think they will come down as more states adopt the law. Look at the Paris film closely when they discuss how difficult it was to convince non cyclists that allowing 2 way bike traffic on 1 way streets was safe while adding options for cyclists that encouraged them to ride. This is very similar, Idaho has 27 years of experience proving that the Stop as Yield law is safe, but it is very difficult to convince many non cyclists of that.

    Bjorn Warloe

  • CBrinkman

    Personally I think it would be a waste of resources. I already do Idaho stops on my ride to work. There are stop signs and red lights that I routinely slow for, check for cars and peds and police officers, and go on my merry little way. And I’m a mellow cyclist.

    I would prefer to spend my energy on encouraging enforcement, street re-design, and getting more cyclists out on the streets.

  • To clarify: I don’t believe we need any new law or laws to support an “Idaho style” stop-as-yield protocol, nor do we need any new law or laws to support effective enforcement of right-of-way respect, it’s a matter of prioritizing enforcement of the laws we already have, actively enforcing those laws, and wrapping it all in a big helping of education. We’re asking that existing “failure to yield” and “unsafe merge” provisions of the CVC be prioritized by the SFPD while “failure to stop” be de-prioritized, and prioritization made by mode according to potential for harm (as Marc points out and we all know, motor vehicles are the cause of almost all injuries on the street, so almost all of the enforcement attention should be spent on motor vehicle behavior, with a tiny bit left over for citing cyclists and peds).

    It’s not as if the SFPD is citing lots of cyclists for rolling stops right now — if tomorrow we had a stop-as-yield law in place we wouldn’t see a dramatic decrease in ticketed bikers, and anyhow without a serious and thorough education component many people would still regard cyclists as scofflaws even if we had a stop-as-yield law in place. And we’d still have jerks in cars and jerks on bikes bullying other road users. What we need is an official commitment to supporting right-of-way respect for all users, via prioritized enforcement and education, with active implementation, not just periodic “stings” punctuating months of neglect . . .

  • Of course, SFPD enforcement against cyclists as called for in a policy in the Bike Plan seemed to not have been enjoined over the past 1000 days, but the City was unable to continue any projects that touched on bicycles even they had raised no conceivable CEQA concerns. Funny how it works out that way.

    We need to get Dr. Bhatia’s group at the DPH to provide the public health data as an empirical justification for prioritizing SFPD enforcement and following through on those enforcement records with general orders that make sure it happens.

    Using our friends at the DPH who were so helpful on the LOS project to provide data to set police priorities to drive successful public health outcomes is a winning strategy.


  • Baronpilot

    This is off topic, but…take a look at the story of the man who was ran down by a lifted monster truck in the OC. The comments are amazing, including one just posted my a member of the family.

    Google “beach vu bicyclist” and you’ll find the story in the OC Register.

    and READ the comments…that is where the Real story is…

  • Agreed, public health and public safety are bound together, it’s pretty hard to have a healthy public if there are significant public safety issues (objective and perceived). DPH is already active in this realm a bit, but hobbled by poor funding (like a lot of public realm work, DPH’s safe streets efforts are mainly grant-funded).

    Everyone who cares about good public health (in the broadest sense) should join in on this campaign to bring safety to the public realm through prioritized enforcement and energetic education & outreach. For that last notion, see good examples in Portland OR for last year’s bike box rollout (“Get Behind the Box”), legible eye-catching signs right at the intersections with the new treatment plus billboards, TV and radio spots, and more.

    You can’t just throw out sharrows or bike signal heads or colored bike lanes and expect everyone to just get it, nor can you go from zero enforcement to crackdown and expect it to be effective or lasting as a behavior-changer. This is an expensive proposition, not just a few bus-back signs admonishing cyclists nor three-a-year crosswalk stings, a full system of work. But it’s essential if we’re going to achieve the 8-80 demographics we desire for cyclists on SF’s streets.

  • Heather

    “drivers and some bikers would still like to call me lawless because i blow through stop signs and red lights on my bike. just to have these people stop whining would make pushing for this law change worth it.”

    You are lawless Peter. You’ve just said you break the law. Why do you object to calling a spade a spade?

    “third, once the whining about stop sign and red light bike running goes away, we might actually get to shine the light a bit on where it really belongs – outlaw driver behavior. they’re the true danger on the streets”

    I beg to differ, Pete. Expecting people to obey the law is hardly whining.
    I’ve never nearly been hit by a car in San Francisco but I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been in a crosswalk and nearly been hit by a bike. Why should any vehicles be exempt from the law? Oh, and before you start–I don’t own a car. Or a bike.

  • “I’ve never nearly been hit by a car in San Francisco but I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been in a crosswalk and nearly been hit by a bike.”

    You are either unique or a liar.

  • Heather

    Unique perhaps, but not a liar. That said, I am unusually cautious; I don’t think most people are. When I see that the light says “walk” I don’t. I look for people who have run the red light–distressingly common–then cross when the way is clear. So no, I’ve never had a close call with a car here. Also, in my experience the cars tend to stop at stop signs. You know quite well the bikers do not.

  • Heather – I invite you to walk down Douglass Street with me any day, at pretty much any time. The cars coming down 24th through 20th towards Douglass “sort of stop” at the stop signs, and by that I mean on the other side of the crosswalk. And I mean “slow to 5 MPH unless there is cross traffic”.

    Unfortunately that is not where me or my dog are walking, we cross the street – I know this sounds crazy – in the actual crosswalk.

    The situation is far worse trying to cross Eureka St. Pretty much every day I walk my dog to the park I have to shoot a cross look at a driver who has almost run Audrey over.

    It’s pretty simple to see what happens, they glance over and see me, and actually try to clear the intersection *faster* in order to be going through the intersection without having to wait for me – the silly pedestrian – to cross. The problem is that Audrey is walking 2 yards in front of me and she’s only 18 inches tall, and the driver does not see the dog with their cursory glance.

    The car is supposed to *stop* at the stop sign regardless of whether there is a dog attatched to me.

    Not saying this doesn’t happen with bikes too, but your memory is almost certainly selective, part of it may be the neighborhood you walk in. Crossing 16th through 26th on Valencia the problem with right turning cyclists and pedestrians is pretty bad. But the problem in that same stretch with right turning motorists is *just as bad*, for pedestrians *AND* cycliss. However, pedestrians have been trained to expect motorists to do stupid crap, so they filter those experiences from their mind.

  • jack

    I bike, drive, run and walk in the city. Today many people, driving cars or riding bikes, don’t make full stops at signs or even lights. For the most part this seems to work ok. But to pass a law to allow this would simply encourage even more aggressive behavior and may lead to more accidents.

    One law that needs to be enacted or enforced is lights/reflectors on bikers at night. Far too many bikers ride at night with no or inadequate lights/reflectors on them so they are visible to others.

    BTW, what’s with people on bikes talking on cell phones? It’s bad enough for the car drivers but on a bike, it’s even more dangerous, especially if you are another biker or on foot.

  • re: Cellphones…

    google the following things

    1) fatality cellphone driver

    2) fatality cellphone cyclist

    Not defending the cellphone using cyclist, just getting freakonomic. Not sure how skilled you are as a bike rider – Tour De France riders can safely remove leg warmers, jackets, open a coke and eat lunch, and even fix broken deraillers all while riding down a twisty road at 40 MPH. People who ride around SF daily probably find talking on a cell while riding no more difficult than most drivers find talking on the cellphone. Those that don’t have that level of comfort would not dream of it. To the uninitiated it looks absolutely insane, but that’s definitely an exaggeration.

    Of course the most important factor is that a distracted driver is far more likely to kill themselves (or someone else) than a distracted cyclist.

    Personally, I pull over. You shouldn’t talk on a cellphone while cycling – or driving. But throwing this argument in here is just creating a distraction.

  • Bill Wright

    2011 California legislation proposed wording:

    Title: Yield law for human powered vehicles (HPVs) at stop signs

    Description:  HPVs may treat stop signs as a yield, only when safe.

    HPVs may include unicycles, bicycles, foot powered scooters, skate boards, kinetic sculptures, or other human powered transportation vehicles. A HPV is considered in this legislation as a vehicle of over 30 lbs. weight.

    Whereas a HPV is usually heavy and difficult to start and stop with human power.

    Whereas the time that a HPV is in an intersection is quite large compaired to a faster motorized vehicles, and thus is exposed to an extended time of danger and conflict in an intersection.

    Whereas this law will decrease delay times in intersections and increase safety of HPV riders.

    Whereas tihis law makes many low-traffic back-road routes attractive for cyclist, thus reducing focused flow of bicyclist with other traffic on major throughfares. 

    Whereas safety for cyclist and car drivers are improved with this decentralisted use of streets.

    Whereas a cyclist usually has an unrestricted view around themselves.”

    The People Of The State Of California Do Enact As Follows:

    Section 1. 
    Section 21202.5 is added to the Vehicle Code, to read:
    21202.5. Notwithstanding any other provision of law, a person operating a human-powered vehicle (HPV) and approaching a stop sign shall slow down and, if required for safety, stop before entering the intersection. After slowing to a speed that is reasonable and prudent having due regard for weather and visibility, and due regard for the traffic at a stop sign or stopping, the HPV person shall yield the right-of-way to a vehicle that is in the intersection or approaching the intersection so closely as to constitute an immediate hazard during the time the HPV person would be moving across or within the intersectionn.  After slowing or stopping, and yielding the right-of-way as required by this section, the HPV person may turn or procede through the intersection in a reasonable and prudent manner.

    In all cases the speed while yielding through a stop sign will be less than 10 mph.

  • Why exclude bicycles weighing less than 30 pounds? A little web searching turned up a list ( that claims that many bicycles fall slightly under this cutoff.

    Where is the provision that bicyclists who are rolling through the stop sign must yield to pedestrians in the crosswalk? As written, this privileges vehicles over pedestrians.


Photo: Hui Hwa Nam.

Anti-Bike Editorial Misses Point on Bike Yield

It’s like clockwork. Whenever the Tribune runs a sensible article about cycling, they always feel the need to level the playing field with a wrongheaded editorial or nonsensical anti-bike screed. On Monday the paper ran transportation reporter Mary Wisniewski’s thoughtful piece on a new DePaul study that calls for legalizing the “Idaho stop” – the […]

“Bike Yield” Passes Without Enough Votes for Veto Override

The Bike Yield ordinance was heard by the full San Francisco Board of Supervisors yesterday. It passed, with six “ayes” and five against — two “ayes” short of what’s needed to override Mayor Edwin Lee’s veto pen. The San Francisco Examiner reports that mayoral spokesperson Christine Falvey was ready with a response. “The mayor believes this endangers pedestrians […]

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. Breed voiced her position today in today’s […]