Photo by David Niddrie
By Elly Blue and Lolly Walsh
In an effort to spark debate about hot topics hitting the bikeosphere, Momentum columnists and bicycle advocates Elly Blue, of Portland, OR, and Lolly Walsh, of San Francisco, CA, will duke it out to see which bike steers the truer course.
The Question at Hand: In the early 1980s, the small rural state of Idaho made it legal for bicycle riders to treat stop signs as yield signs. Upon riding to a stop sign and verifying that the “coast is clear,” the rider is permitted to proceed through the intersection without coming to a complete stop. Was Idaho’s move an example of prescience or shortsightedness?
Idaho stop laws are a minor housekeeping matter that takes the presence of bikes on the road into account. They should not be a cause for conservative caterwauling.
Stop signs exist to slow down drivers and make them look for cross traffic.
On a bike, the need is still there, but the mechanics are different. You can see better than in a car, have fewer built-in distractions and can react to circumstances more quickly and with greater agility.
On bikes, the stakes are lower. We lack the destructive power and speed of automobiles. The idea that cyclists should follow the exact same laws as motorists is patronizing and punitive.
Bikes are human-powered. When we stop, we lose our momentum. The time it takes for us to start again slows us and the motorists behind us down. Momentum is even more of a big deal for people carrying heavy loads up hills.
Idaho-style stops are not the same as “blowing through” a red light – that’s still illegal. Allowing cyclists to roll through a stop sign when the coast is clear recognizes that bicycling doesn’t fit the same mold as driving or walking. Our
shifting transportation culture demands that our laws evolve to work for everyone, and that means pursuing cycling policies similar to Idaho’s.
Lolly Walsh is a bicycle advocate living in San Francisco, CA. She loves the elegance of the bicycle and rides hers for transportation, convenience and pleasure. She and writes about cities, bikes, possibility at Re-imagine Today.
While the Idaho stop law is a fantastic example of what the future could look like if we begin considering the needs of all road users, it is simply not feasible at this point.
Why? The Idaho stop is a publicity nightmare.
While bicycles are becoming more widely accepted as a legitimate form of transportation, there are still a lot of people out there who fear change and don’t want bikes on the road.
Look at Oregon, Utah and Montana. The only thing that came out of trying to pass Idaho stop laws there was anger in the media, rage on the road and the perpetuation of the myth that people on bikes think they’re too cool to obey the law.
We shouldn’t waste our time making exceptions to accepted traffic laws that draw attention to the difference between bicyclists and motorists.
Cyclists are already stopped and fined by police for a variety of infractions. If we pass a universal Idaho-style law tomorrow, they will simply find another reason to harass us.
We don’t need more laws! We should focus instead on bicycle advocacy that will change our culture and streets and help everyone feel safe and comfortable while riding on the road.
Elly Blue lives in Portland, OR. She writes about bicycling, including a column about the bicycle economy for grist.org, a regular news roundup for bikeportland.org and a zine called Taking the Lane. She is the cofounder of pdxbybike.com.