SFPD Chief Suhr Misses the Point of the “Bike Yield Law”

SF Police Department Chief Greg Suhr doesn’t seem to grasp the point of the “Bike Yield Law” proposed by Supervisor John Avalos.

SFPD Chief Greg Suhr. Screenshot from SF Bay Guardian/Youtube

“Stop signs are pretty simple. They say ‘stop,'” Suhr told KQED today. “They don’t say ‘yield,’ they don’t say ‘slow down.'” Suhr added that anyone who violates the letter of the stop sign law “will be cited.”

If only it were so simple. Here’s the problem: California’s stop sign law is based on the unrealistic expectation that people ride 30-pound bikes exactly like they pilot 3,000-pound cars. Just about everybody who gets on a bike, including SFPD officers (see the video below), treats stop signs by slowing down and yielding to others with the right-of-way.

There is an ethic to biking safely at stop signs, and it’s more like the “golden rule,” as Avalos put it, than the letter of the current law. Idaho updated its stop sign law in 1982 to reflect that, and bicycle-related injuries there have dropped since. As bike commuters demonstrated on the Wiggle recently, strict compliance with the stop sign law by people on bikes would result in absurd traffic queues — and no one would be safer for it.

“Our traffic laws have not changed since the mid-20th century, but the way people move around our cities has,” SF Bicycle Coalition Executive Director Noah Budnick said at a press conference introducing the Avalos ordinance today. “What the Bike Yield Law does is move our city into a leadership position in the 21st century.”

That idea has been embraced by the six supervisors who co-sponsored Avalos’ proposal, which emphasizes that anyone who violate others’ right-of-way should be ticketed, while making “citations for bicyclists who safely yield at stop signs the lowest law enforcement priority.” The ordinance was also endorsed by the SF Pedestrian Safety Advisory Committee.

Changing the state stop sign law would require a broader, more challenging campaign. Until then, Avalos’ non-binding ordinance will need support from Chief Suhr and other SFPD top brass to affect police enforcement practices.

“We should be making sure that our traffic enforcement resources are used on the highest-priority traffic violations,” Avalos said at a press conference today. “[Ticketing] cyclists at stop signs who yield is not the highest priority.”

According to KQED, four supervisors have not taken a position on the ordinance, and Supervisor Norman Yee said he’ll vote against it because it’s “not clear enough.”

“People who share the streets should follow our laws,” Yee said. “What I worry about is the safety of all people and that comes first before any one lobbyist group.”

But that’s the point: Setting smarter enforcement priorities will help ensure limited police resources are efficiently allocated to preventing behavior that jeopardizes “the safety of all people.” Spelling out in the law a reasonable standard for biking at stop signs, rather than sporadically cracking down on innocuous violations, should result in safer and more predictable behavior on the streets.

“This is, at the end of the day, about safety,” Budnick said.

A hearing on the ordinance is expected to be held at the end of October, and it could be adopted in November.

  • pablo_skils

    The only empirical evidence of increasing danger is in Idaho, where this law has been followed statewide for 23 years. There has been no increase in bike/car and bike/ped accidents that can be attributed to the Idaho Stop Law. Therefore Suhr’s example is legitimate only in as far as it states laws should not change even when they don’t make sense. As Bialack says, Suhr doesn’t get it. My analysis is he either lacks the thinking power to get it, or he’s just being bloody-minded.

    And to counter your second point: I’ve seen cyclists hit and killed by car drivers, and have been hit and injured myself when following the law.

    To your final point: No, they won’t allow that, and this stop law certainly won’t encourage that.

  • RichLL

    Er, a (UK) “Give Way” sign is the equivalent of a (US) “Yield” sign. That said, I still prefer roundabouts, because they do a better job of keeping the traffic moving.

  • pablo_skils

    It’s a huge pain in the neck. Most people roll through the stop signs when there’s no need to stop, which is why this ordinance is being proposed. The status quo is stupid in that it makes scofflaws of people who have no wish to break the law and in other ways are law-abiding citizens. It’s broke, it needs to be fixed.

  • pablo_skils

    Sorry, that was a bit rough on my part. Either I didn’t fully read your response or just mis-understood it. To be fair, it’s quite possible that in the UK a choice was made between a roundabout and a traffic light or stop sign. I agree with you about roundabouts being a more fluent solution. And about replacing the Stop signs with Yield signs.

  • pablo_skils

    In the scenario you describe I imagine it would be the same as for a Stop-sign controlled junction. The first car to arrive at the line has right of way regardless of their intended direction. You still have to slow down and if necessary stop for a Yield sign.

  • pablo_skils

    I have been advised by the San Francisco Bicycle Advisory Committee that I don’t even need to stop. If I roll across the line at 1 mph, I should not get cited, and if I did my chances in court would be good. So no to your point. There is a discrepancy between the spirit and the letter of the law here.

  • This is true, I hadn’t thought about our roundabouts being in place of stop signs. Although really our roundabouts are more give way/yield signs than stop signs I would have thought.

  • ARRO

    It isn’t even “Law” that is being introduced and would not make the behavior legal. I can not believe the BOS is wasting it’s time on this ridiculous “opinion ordinance” rather then focusing on more pressing issues. While I do not agree with a number of things Suhr has said, I have to respect him in this case because he is absolutely correct. The sign says “Stop” and is a state law and unless that is changed, it should be enforced.

    We as a civil society do not get to cherry-pick laws we do not like or get to pre-empt state law. This should not be even up for discussion as it is in this manner. This should instead be going through the correct path of campaigning to alter the state vehicle code so that there is consistency throughout the state and so that it effects actual change rather then encouraging law breaking and creating confusion of what is and isn’t legal .

  • Gezellig

    We as a civil society do not get to cherry-pick laws we do not like or get to pre-empt state law.

    It’s not preempting state law whatsoever to establish an official LLEP (Lowest Law Enforcement Priority). LLEPs are a potential tool in the toolbox for any issue, especially when much more urgent public-safety issues are going underenforced.

    On to that…every day in SF about 3 people who are walking get hit by motor vehicles:

    http://walksf.org/learn-more/walking-facts/

    Sadly, around 100 of them annually will be severely injured or killed.

    SF has way more urgent and pressing issues in terms of safety on our streets.

    This should instead be going through the correct path of campaigning to alter the state vehicle code

    Way easier said than done. This has been tried many times, but there’s a big Catch-22. Despite the evidence that Idaho’s law has been successful there, at best the retort in CA has always been “how do we know this works in CA? In order to change the law we’d need a pilot program first…which is against the law.”

    Do you see the problem of the circular logic here?

    Consider this a step towards a pilot program.

  • kceem

    I’m not crazy about any of them, but the 1-2-3 to Replace Ed Lee campaign seems the best option right now: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1040609395974042/

    Vote (in any order) for Weiss, Herrera, and Schuffman, and we can work towards getting someone that sees the city as both a home and an urban environment, not a cash cow 1950’s style sleepy suburb on the sea.

    And that includes replacing the do-nothings at the MTA and SFPD.

  • Morgan Fitzgibbons

    Actually the number of severe injuries in SF was over 500 last year. New study came out recently: http://sf.streetsblog.org/2015/09/11/study-most-of-sfs-severe-traffic-injuries-missing-from-police-data/

  • ✋ “Stop signs are pretty simple. They say ‘Stop.'”

    Speed limit signs, on the other hand, refer to a “limit” that we actually use as a mean from which we calculate one standard deviation, from which we derive a policy that allows 85% of the speeding to go unenforced, when we even bother to enforce it at all. Is that “pretty simple” as well?

  • In general we have STOP signs at every intersection because we have lowered our expectation of road users (predominantly motorists) to understand the how to yield right-of-way at unsigned intersections. The STOP signs are there to at least slow them down.

  • @jonobate – You prove a point with your first sentence. The law about right-of-way is simple, and it is the same for intersections with STOP signs as it is with intersections with YIELD signs and also intersections with no signs at all. Yet we have lowered our expectations for motorist competency and don’t expect them to know this. The STOP signs are there to keep them from crashing into each other so much.

  • @jonobate – The Page Street traffic circles were half-assed implementations, with predictable half-assed results. Unfortunately they’ve been used as an exemplar for the last decade.

  • Speed Limit signs say “LIMIT” yet enforcement priorities don’t adhere to that (which much worse results than we see from California Stops).

  • The word on the “Speed Limit” sign means limit, not 10-20mph over.

  • @ARRO – Except that the “more pressing issues” in the eyes of the SFPD is ignoring their own Focus On The Five policies to conduct stings against bicyclists who aren’t actually threatening anybody.

  • jonobate

    True, but the fact that cars may still be moving forward when they reach the line means that it will be more difficult to determine who got there first. It might be doable to have a regular junction with yield signs, but a roundabout would clarify for everyone who has right of way.

  • pablo_skils

    Roundabouts are practical in some locations, but in many others even mini-roundabouts could be very difficult to implement without reducing sidewalk width, which the disabled and pedestrian groups would never agree to. It would’ve been a lot better if the city had thought of roundabouts a hundred years ago, but in many of the higher-density neighbourhoods I’d say that ship has sailed. I would support any moves to install roundabouts wherever feasible.

  • jonobate

    Pretty sure that if you can fit a mini roundabout here, you can fit one in any SF intersection without reducing sidewalk width. You’ll need to remove parking to ‘daylight’ the intersection, but that should be done anyway.

    http://www.sabre-roads.org.uk/wiki/images/7/75/Tiny_mini_roundabout_1_-_Coppermine_-_4700.JPG

  • spencerfleury

    Thanks, Chief Suhr.

  • spencerfleury

    The “research” is the empirical evidence where this law has actually been implemented. That evidence suggests that the fact that this “seems so counter-intuitive” doesn’t mean squat.

    People tend to place an awful lot of faith in their own intuition. As it turns out, that confidence is unjustified a surprisingly high percentage of the time.

  • neroden

    Actually, “four way yields” are perfectly possible. They’re called “uncontrolled intersections” — I learned about them when I first learned to drive. First person to the intersection has the right of way — everyone else back off and wait for them.

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