GO WHEN IT’S CLEAR, STOP WHEN IT’S DANGEROUS: Why Bikes Should Treat Red Lights and Stop Signs as Yields

San Francisco is contemplating an “Idaho Stop” rule allowing bicyclists to treat red lights like stop signs and stop signs as if they were yields.  Should Boston do it too?

I)  TRUE STORY

 “You know why I pulled you over,” the cop said.  It was a statement, not a question.

 I didn’t want to come across as obnoxious, but the situation was so obvious that I couldn’t help laughing as I got off the bike and took off my helmet.   I had come to the intersection, slowed, looked both ways and, seeing no cars, continued through.  I do it all the time.

 “Of course; I went through the red light,” I said. “Which I did in order to be safe.  There were no cars coming, and I wanted to get through before any did arrive.  It’s a busy street and it’s a lot safer to cross when there are no cars.”

“You went through the light,” he said, starting to fill out the ticket.  I could see that it was a $20 fine.

“Yes,” I said.  “I’d be willing to pay $20 pretty often in order to not risk my life.”

He looked up at that.  “It’s dangerous to run the light.” 

“Not if there are no cars coming.  It’s more dangerous to go on the green if there are cars turning or racing through. ”

“That makes no sense.”  At least he was listening.

“About a half-dozen cyclists have been killed over the past few years by cars, or trucks, or buses.  None of them were running a red light.  In fact, several of them were going straight towards a green light when they got hit.  If there are lots of fast cars coming up behind me potentially going to turn I won’t go through an intersection even if I have a green light.  What matters is the amount of traffic and their speed -- it's the danger, not the color of the light.  If there are no cars it’s safer, no matter if it’s red or green.”

“I’ve never heard anything like that.  I ride a bike.  You broke the law.”

“Look, I’ll take the ticket.  But I’d rather break the law than die.  And you should think about what would make you safest the next time you go out for a ride.”

I didn’t add that if I do stop for a red light and the intersection has a “Leading Pedestrian Indicator” that gives walkers a 3-second head start, I start pedaling when the Walk signal lights even though the light is still red.  Or that I also go with the Walk signal at 4-way-red intersections at busy crossroads where all traffic is stopped so pedestrians – who I make sure to give priority to – can move catty-corner as well as straight across.

So the cop wrote the ticket.  I rode off.  And I paid.  And I’d be happy to pay again.  It’s cheaper than hospital bills.

II) PRECEDENT

In 1982 the Idaho state courts were getting clogged with minor traffic violations which the law treated as criminal offenses, including many “technical violations” of traffic signal regulations by cyclists such as the requirement for full feet-on-the-ground stops at stop signs.  The state magistrates pushed to turn many of the traffic violations into “civil public offenses” that didn’t require court appearances.  In the process, a senior court administrator saw an opportunity to also update the state’s bicycling regulation.  He appended a change to allow bicyclists to treat red lights as stop signs and stop signs as yield signs.  Cyclists can also treat a red light as a yield if they are turning right, continuing slowly if no one is coming .    In the year following the new laws passage “bicycle injury rates declined by 14.5 percent and there was no change in the number of bicycle fatalities” and there is “no evidence” since then “of a long-term increase in injury or fatality rates as a result of the adoption of the “Idaho stop” law.”

In the years since then, the inability of first-generation buried traffic-control sensors to pick up the presence of a bicycle has led a number of states to allow cyclists to proceed through a red light after a passage of time that the signal doesn’t change.

Critics charge that the “Idaho stop” simply panders to the ill behavior of bicyclists and their self-entitled demand for special treatment.  Supporters point out that bikes aren’t the functional equivalent of cars and are often appropriately and legally treated differently.  If anyone is being given special treatment it’s car drivers whose multi-ton weapons are the real source of danger on the roads.  And while there obviously are rude, stupid, and self-endangering cyclists there is just as high a percentage – if not more – rude, stupid, and dangerous-to-others car drivers.  Not to mention all the pedestrians who step into the road with their eyes glued to their phones. The point is that every category of humans has its percentage of jerks.

Making the situation more complicated is the frequent dysfunctional timing of walk signals in many cities, leading pedestrians to cut across the street when it feels safe to do so rather than when the “walk” signal or green light is on.  It would make no more sense to send the police out to give these reasonably-acting people jaywalking tickets than it does to start ticketing cyclists for going through empty intersections.

The Idaho law doesn’t allow, and no one suggests, that bikes should be able to race through a busy intersection or take a left turn if cars are coming.  If there's already a car or another bike – or a pedestrian – in the intersection they have the right of way.  But if there is no one there, muscle momentum should rule – the bikes should roll.

III) LETTER OF THE LAW

Most multi-person activities – in the workplace, on elevators, on the sidewalk, and on the roads only work because everyone using them goes beyond the formal rules to decide when to go, when to slow, and how to weave through problems.  No matter how formalized or rule-directed, they all depend on the problem-solving creativity and self-direct initiative of the people actually there. Including bicyclists. 

Recently, a San Francisco police captain announced that his district would begin enforcing the city’s full-stop-at-stop-sign law for bicyclists.  An unofficial group of cyclists then announced that they would demonstrate what would happen to traffic if they actually followed the rule.  The result, focused on one intersection in the “Wiggle” section of a key cross-town route was total congestion.  (see the video).  As soon as this “tactical urbanism” event started the cars started stacking up behind them.  As each individual cyclists came to the corner, stopped, waited until there was absolutely no cars coming across, and then slowly moved the line of waiting cars grew longer. 

Point made.  San Francisco is now about to pass an “Idaho Stop” law.

IV) NEXT STEPS

The purpose of traffic signals is to keep things flowing and improve safety.  Treating bicycles as if they are cars or trucks or buses makes no sense, both functionally and for the purpose of keeping people safe.

It is probably politically impossible to get the laws changed in Massachusetts today.  But the reality is that most bicyclists act as if the “Idaho Stop” was already law – not because they are criminals but because doing so makes their ride safer and keeps traffic moving.  Someday we should bring the law into line with good practice. 

------------------------

Thanks to Doug Johnson for feedback on earlier drafts.  Any remaining mistakes or opinions are my own responsibility.

----------------------

Related previous posts:

* Aggressive Bike Riders: Getting What We Ask For

* In Boston, Red Means Go!

* Bikes Are Vehicles; But They’re Not Cars

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Showing 14 reactions

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.
  • commented 2016-05-12 14:53:09 -0400
    Thanks for bringing attention to this topic, Steve. I tend to agree overall that the “Idaho Stop” makes sense for bikes, although to some extent I think it may be the wrong solution to the problem.

    To me, the desire for Idaho Stop is a symptom of streets that are primarily designed for cars. (If there were no cars, we wouldn’t need traffic signals at all!) On busy major streets, I think the best solution is to create separated bike lanes with bike signals that give bikes a head start/priority over car traffic. On smaller streets, I’d like to see fewer traffic signals used in general, and instead I’d like to see stop signs/yield signs or perhaps small roundabouts. Where we have stop signs today, for example on residential streets, we should really be using yield signs much more often.

    Given the fact that we currently do not have Idaho Stop, today I always stop and wait at red lights, and only proceed when I have a green light (I even wait during the all-walk phase, where that exists.) I also (almost) always stop at stop signs (I admit that I sometimes don’t come to a 100% dead stop — maybe 90%? — on very quiet streets if there are no pedestrians or cross traffic, and I do turn my head both directions and make it clear that I’m looking.) The reason why I do both of these things is that I think it’s really important for people who bike to set a good example. By not obeying the law, we give fodder to people who say “bicyclists flout the traffic laws; why should we do anything special for them?!” (I realize that in Boston pedestrians and drivers also don’t follow the laws particularly well either, but as our moms used to say, “just because everyone else does something doesn’t mean you should too.”)

    Personally, I think the comfort and convenience argument for Idaho Stop carries a lot more weight than the safety argument. I’ve been biking in Boston for 10+ years, and I’ve never been in a crash with a vehicle. I think it is very possible to bike safely while obeying all of our current laws. Is it always pleasant? Definitely not. (That’s why we need more and better bicycle facilities.)

    The last thing I want to mention is that it is my experience and perception that obeying all the laws results in drivers being more courteous and patient with me. I am rarely ever honked at and rarely do people drive aggressively around me (and I tend to ride in the middle of the lane when it’s too narrow to share side by side with a car, a situation which many drivers could easily be annoyed by.) I think a big reason for that is that I obey all the laws and try to be courteous to everyone else on the road (pedestrians, bicyclists, and drivers.) I think it really is true that when you give respect, you get respect.
  • commented 2016-02-11 23:00:11 -0500
    I was reminded of this topic today, looking at this “motorists dismount to cross roadway” graphic: http://www.copenhagenize.com/2013/02/motorists-dismount.html It brings about the gravity of the difference between biking and driving. It also reminds me of how a friend of mine told me they were pulled over by the cops for biking through a red light on a walk signal, and when the cop wrote them the ticket, they advised that they should have dismounted their bike and walked through the signal.
  • commented 2016-01-23 16:49:35 -0500
    Steve: I wish to acknowledge your great presence of mind while responding to a police officer, and having the courage to start a useful conversation, when my instincts would lead me to be totally deferential, if not obsequious. Yes, you were a white guy on a bicycle, but as the news tells us nowadays, a traffic stop is about police exercising their total power over the rest of us, even if their intentions are good ones. One can never trust their reactions in such situations to anything the “offender” might say. You didn’t waste a Teachable Moment, and used it to good effect! One wonders if there was anything else you might have added, since you had the officer’s interest. If it had been me, I like to think I would have added something like “Officer, I appreciate your concern for my well-being, and as a policeman who takes his duty to uphold the safety of the public seriously, I hope you are consistent with this in all areas. A particularly troubling and dangerous behavior that I see all the time is the failure of motorists to yield to people in crosswalks, which is also in violation of the law. Drivers rarely, if ever stop, even if someone is clearly waiting to cross. People getting injured or killed in crosswalks seems to be a news story at least once a week, and it often involves elderly and children – three teenagers, in costume, were killed in a crosswalk last Halloween in Los Angeles. Drivers don’t seem to know how dangerous this is, or that it is even a violation. Please consider doing something about it.” If the guy were still interested (as opposed to opening the trunk of the squad car, getting ready to throw the bike in back before asking me to take a little ride with him) I’d consider throwing in something about Vision Zero. Has the City informed the Police Dept about that yet? The fact that he stopped you in the circumstances you describe suggests he didn’t have much to do that day, so an extended conversation was certainly possible. Anyway, keep up the good work!
  • commented 2016-01-22 07:58:39 -0500
    from Jeffrey Ferris via email…

    Hello Steve,

    I am exuberant to see this piece from you. Laws need to reflect reality and truth, not to mention safety.

    Yes this is how most of us ride. It is often safer, faster, and less obstructive to drivers. I have had to ask myself many times: Do I run red lights because I am impatient and in a hurry, or am I doing this to be safer. To be honest, it is some of each.

    My guideline is to always respect the protocol of who has the right-of-way. I don’t want to interfere with any other road user who has priority of passage. On the other hand, if there are no cars or peds crossing, there is no reason for a cyclist to sit and wait. For safety, the cyclist is not enclosed in a box blocking sounds and vision and does not have the mass to cause the same death and destruction that cars do.

    Many times I have passed the stopped cars and proceeded safely through red lights, especially on the narrow Centre and South Streets here in JP. I often bike through the next block or more without any cars passing me, and allowing me to ride farther from the car door zone without interfering with any cars coming behind me yet. If I start at the green with all the stopped cars, it is harder for them to see me or pass me, there is a higher chance of getting right-hooked, I need to ride deeper in the car door zone, and I am slowing them down.

    There are both safe and unsafe ways of going through a red light. For us to be truly responsible for teaching safe cycling, we should be able to teach this, but the law prevents this. So we end up with cyclists making up their own rules.

    These are my overall rules and guidelings for cycling:
    Basic Precept: Given the opportunity, They really don’t want to hit me.
    3-C’s: Courtesy, Cooperation, Communication – for all – bikers, walkers, drivers
    Respect the Rules of the Road
    Minimize my risks by being aware of and managing danger zones.

    i.e. To be safe as a cyclist I need to work with all other road users, especially motor vehicles, to be visible and follow the 3-C’s to give them the opportunity to not hit me, and we can all get where we want to go.

    I know this has been a controversial issue to gain traction, even among cyclists. But stop-as-yield when done safely can be promoted as benefiting everyone on the road.

    Jeffrey Ferris
  • commented 2016-01-21 21:36:39 -0500
    from Butch Pemstein via email:

    Hi Steve:

    Just read your blog post on the Idaho stop. Although I adhere to your opinion of red lights and stop signs, almost completely – I will come to a full stop at both before continuing if it is safe to do so – I know full well that not stopping is a violation, and that I will be stopped by the local cop if he sees me. If he is there, and I don’t see him, am I absolutely safe in crossing? I think not. Apparently, I didn’t look well enough. Arguing with him is generally useless, and likely counter-productive. I try not to, although, truth to tell, I am probably unsuccessful.

    The fine is not immediately due. You may appeal, and since it is a local crime, the town administrator or some similar person is the “judge.” Every possibility that he/she will listen with some kind of appreciation for the absurdity of the pinch.

    Disclosure: You may recall that I am the Carlisle two. A few years ago I was subjected to two allegations of violation in the Town of Carlisle. The town administrator absolved me from one, because the cop was a buffoon, and I had to pay the 20 on the other because the arresting cop was the chief of police, (also a buffoon, but not certified!)

    Back to the decision to do an Idaho stop: most motorists do not expect a cyclist to go through, and since predictability and regularity are the keystones of safety, come to a full stop and if and only if absolutely clear – and there are no cops! – go through.

    Best regards: Butch Pemstein
  • commented 2016-01-21 21:29:30 -0500
    Megan: I suspect that you will be better able to charm your way out of the ticket than I was….good luck!

    Quinton: You seem to be arguing for some version of the “shared space” approach pioneered by the late Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman who argued that simply giving everyone equal access to the blank pavement, and making everyone fully responsible for any damage they cause, increases both overall safety and thru-put (because no one is waiting for a Go signal). I find the idea intriguing and probably very appropriate for some situations but not totally convincing as a cure all. However, I do believe that we should put less emphasis on signage and signals as road-user behavioral control strategies and more emphasis on the physical structure/shape/lane markings.

    Mike: Increasing the convenience (and momentum) of traveling by bike ARE relevant in the context of reducing our transportation system’s bias towards car usage and getting more people to pedal. But I still believe that “stop sign = yield” (meaning that riders check for cross traffic before proceeding, without coming to a “pedantic” full stop) will also increase safety, as will the legalization of “bikes can start on ‘walk’ if they yield to pedestrians”, and the installation of bike-specific signals. (As will the practice of waiting for red lights to turn green in front of the crosswalk — which is the proper location, IMHO, for bike boxes as well.) I’m fully aware that “red light = yield” is a step further than anyone is currently proposing, and I agree that it raises questions, but I think it, too, might have overall positive benefits — a tentative position that will have to wait for further research to either validate or refute.
  • commented 2016-01-21 15:51:29 -0500
    Thank you so much for your conversation with the police officer and for writing about it. It’s great to have language to use when the same thing inevitably will happen to any of us.
  • commented 2016-01-21 15:26:42 -0500
    Thanks Steve, right on about this! I’m convinced that stop lights, stop signs, crosswalks, etc. all cause needless conflict and do very little for our safety. As a car driver I get annoyed when pedestrians cross against the light, but if there were no light and only a crosswalk I would be much less annoyed. If there is no crosswalk I get annoyed again. Why?! These are all artificial expectations that are created in my mind by the signage on the road. There are many many more examples of course; the point is that our current road design is more than a century old and way out of step with the reality of driving/biking/walking in the 21st century.
  • commented 2016-01-20 23:34:45 -0500
    Hey Steve, thanks for the comments.

    You say, “We do have a common-sense feeling among the vast majority of bicyclists – shown by their actual behavior — that going when the street is clear is safer than going when lots of cars are zooming past you are trying to turn in front of you.”

    I’m not sure we do. I think we have a clearly strong desire to not wait for a stop or signal, which is common for all road users. Drivers frequently complain about “No turn on red” prohibitions because “why can’t I proceed when there’s no one coming?”. Cambridge rightly favors the pedestrian by prohibiting turn on red at many intersections even though drivers should always yield before turning. Perhaps cyclists should have special privilege for greater convenience. Fair and honest argument, but let’s call it that. There’s merit. Unfortunately, should we do so the risk of pedestrian conflict at busy intersections is increased and yielding rules would need to be enforced.

    Honestly, compared to the convenience argument, I find the “increased safety” argument weak. At stop signs, I see no way “stop equals yield” has any increased safety for the cyclist: either way, you need to look for cross traffic. At best, you can say it makes no difference in safety, and that full stops are needlessly pedantic. I think that’s a pretty good argument, and as you said it follows general cycling practice. That’s what San Francisco proposes, with continued protection for pedestrians. It might work here, but I’m not sure stop signs are cyclist’s biggest gripe like they are in SF.

    Arguing the safety of “stop equals yield” at stop lights is a whole other issue. First, that isn’t an Idaho stop (which requires full stop at stop lights before proceeding), and I don’t believe it’s legal anywhere in the US. So let’s consider a “stop, yield, and proceed” instead. The way I see it, an intersection that is unsafe as to require proceeding on red (say, due to conflict with turning vehicles) is more unsafe for cyclists proceeding on green (right hooks). We should fix the intersection, not just say “proceed at your own risk.” If we don’t, we leave potentially very inexperienced cyclists on their own. I don’t see that as encouraging or safe.

    Legalizing “proceed on pedestrian signal while yielding” is an interesting idea to consider, but it will be controversial and has legitimate pedestrian safety concerns. Other options include leading bicycle phases now that we can have dedicated bicycle signals, or bike boxes (though it sounds like federal guidance on them is still tentative).

    These are the kinds of issues that need to be thought out if we want to end up with safe and convenient practice and policy.

    Thanks again.
    Mike
  • commented 2016-01-20 21:46:47 -0500
    Kara:

    Thanks for the comment. In general, I actually agree with the idea that obeying the law is a good thing, even when it’s inconvenient. There are only a few situations that inherently justify refusal: if the law is in serious contradiction with other laws so that you are going to violate something no matter what you do; if the law enforces oppression or exploitation and there is simply no realistic pathway within ordinary political processes to change it; and if obeying the law would put you in danger. In my opinion, the way that current law treats bicycles as cars in terms of traffic controls hits the third button.
    ======

    Alyson:

    Thanks for the feedback. Just to be clear: I always slow down at every intersection so that I can look extremely carefully to see if anyone is coming. And if there’s even a glimmer of oncoming movement I stop, no matter the light color — exactly because safety is my top consideration. A few seconds more of travel time is a lot less burdensome than an injury, or even a close call.

    In terms of walking across a street at mid-block — I totally agree with you that is both safer and smarter than doing so at the corners, where cars came be coming from four directions with multiple turning moves. The vilification of “jaywalking”, including the now legalized assumption that people should only cross at intersections, was (as you suggest) imposed on us as part of the campaign to give cars dominance and free reign on our roads.
    ======

    Mike:

    You raise important issues, both of philosophy and law. Boston, or any big city, is a very different place than Idaho. (Beautiful scenery out there, by the way.) But the fact that they’re different doesn’t mean that programs that work in one place are totally irrelevant in the other – maybe yes, maybe no. The test should be based, as you point out, on large amounts of statistically-significant data rather than anecdotes or our perceptions which, you are again correct in saying, are not decisive. (I am very aware that I don’t see everything, and the older I get the less I notice.) And, you again correctly point out, when it comes to street behavior, safety is increased when people follow predictable and uniform patterns of behavior. Finally, you worry that opening the door to not stopping at signals will lead to even worse misbehavior than we currently have.

    Still….I think there’s a trade-off worth making, a risk worth taking, about this issue. We don’t have the huge piles of data needed for empirical decision-making – although we do know that following the rules doesn’t always keep bicyclists safe. We do have a common-sense feeling among the vast majority of bicyclists – shown by their actual behavior — that going when the street is clear is safer than going when lots of cars are zooming past you are trying to turn in front of you. So I think it’s worth giving it a try.
    =====

    Arne:

    I’m a rather bold cyclists and I’m not afraid to “take the lane” when I think that’s the safest thing to do. But I hate blocking cars that wish – and, except for my presence safely could – go faster. It makes the drivers touchy and me nervous. I’m also nervous when there’s no clear lane for bicycles and I’m hugging the uncertain right side of the pavement having to fight passing cars for space. I understand that most roads will never have bike lanes, much less protected bike lanes, so we have to learn to move like vehicles. But when traffic is fast or heavy it certainly doesn’t make me (much less my wife and children) feel comfortable.

    ====
    Steve
  • commented 2016-01-20 20:31:23 -0500
    From Kara Oberg via email

    Great story Steve. Love it and I’m obviously in support of the Idaho Stop. I do it all the time. I think one part of this debate is people’s fear of “breaking the law” even though the law is not actually making them safer. I know of a local transportation official who rides to work every day down a very busy street instead of going one block over on a street which is 100X more comfortable to ride on but has stop signs at every corner because he won’t break the law and doesn’t want to stop at every stop sign.
    Kara
  • commented 2016-01-20 20:29:14 -0500
    From Alyson Fletcher (via email)…

    Steve,

    Thanks for the blog post about the Idaho stop law – I was delighted to hear that there might be traction to raise this issue in Massachusetts because I have been seeing a lot of buzz about it on the APBP listserv, with Oregon bringing this forth again (successfully, this time?) and Santa Fe thinking of bringing it up in New Mexico. I hope something about this is addressed in Massachusetts and I’m interested to further discuss what is the most politically salient way about bringing up this issue.

    Beyond the “bikes are inherently different” and “it feels safer for users” argument, I feel like your post could also bring out the “it makes common sense” element or that whole element of how much physical exertion is associated with stopping a bike and re-starting it. The physics around stopping at every single block makes my knees ache :) I will confess, though, I do make a point of stopping at most stop lights (as a demonstration for the sake of road user respect and taking a breather to observe life around me on the street) but I generally only stop at stop signs if someone else is there first, there’s someone walking, or someone is watching…otherwise, I do the yield measure.

    Anyhow, this whole discussion reminds me of debates about jaywalking (and that old 99 percent invisible talk segment about how it came that vehicles went from being villainized to being accepted, given the related dangers to those who walk in cities). It also makes me think about how this is a parallel safety situation to why I choose to cross mid-block as much as I can: because, at mid-block, I can see/gauge the speed of oncoming cars for myself, and I only have to look both ways before going. At an intersection, I have to have eyes in more than four directions, even when I have the walk signal, to ensure that no one is going to right or left hook me or make some other dodgy move that will pose a risk my life.

    I feel like the tone of these two paragraphs in your blog make this all feel like it’s a war of all street users from different modes being pitted against each other:
    “Critics charge that the “Idaho stop” simply panders to the ill behavior of bicyclists and their self-entitled demand for special treatment. Supporters point out that bikes aren’t the functional equivalent of cars and are often appropriately and legally treated differently. If anyone is being given special treatment it’s car drivers whose multi-ton weapons are the real source of danger on the roads. And while there obviously are rude, stupid, and self-endangering cyclists there is just as high a percentage – if not more – rude, stupid, and dangerous-to-others car drivers. Not to mention all the pedestrians who step into the road with their eyes glued to their phones. The point is that every category of humans has its percentage of jerks.”
    “Making the situation more complicated is the frequent dysfunctional timing of walk signals in many cities, leading pedestrians to cut across the street when it feels safe to do so rather than when the “walk” signal or green light is on. It would make no more sense to send the police out to give these reasonably-acting people jaywalking tickets than it does to start ticketing cyclists for going through empty intersections.”

    Reading your second paragraph there makes me think you would be aghast at my practice of cautiously crossing mid-block when I can :) I do agree that it would make sense to equally treat all offenders, walkers included, but I think this second paragraph especially is missing the point somehow. Walking has different safety implications to others just like riding a bike has different safety implications than operating a car….making me think this section of your blog should re-highlight that element of the argument, which you had been raising as it related to bikes in the first paragraph that I pulled above. And you might want to address the tone to not elicit wars between road users :)

    Sidepoint: I am curious – what is the cost comparison of a jaywalking ticket vs the cost of a ticket for a cyclist running a red light or stop vs the cost of the same offense by a car? I think this could be an interesting thing to raise alongside all of this and why people do what they do.

    Anyhow, i could go on and on about this. I just wanted to thank you for raising the discussion and bringing out some good points, and I wanted to raise some points about the walking perspective (from me, who makes use of all modes of getting around).

    Thanks!

    Alyson
  • commented 2016-01-20 12:34:22 -0500
    Steve,

    Provocative post. I have comments and disagreements on several of your points. I think we agree, though, that we should have a meaningful, rational discussion about this issue based on facts and information to improve the safety of everyone on our roads.

    I have two main issues with your premise that cyclists should generally exercise “Idaho stop” rules. First is the question of whether the Idaho stop is appropriate in Boston for the purpose of changing laws and regulation. The second is whether cyclists should violate existing statute based on their evaluation of personal safety.

    Let’s take these one at a time. Idaho stop has been around in Idaho since 1982. Basically, it says, “stop sign is like yield, red light is like stop sign” plus some exceptions. And it is state law, so enforcement and liability is aligned with practice. Idaho is a rural state with a total population one quarter that of the Boston metro area. It’s largest city, Bosie, has a population 50% greater than Cambridge with a population density about the same as Wellesley. (I bet you can’t name Idaho’s second largest city.) That means that statewide there are a lot fewer traffic control devices in Idaho, a lot more of them are stop signs, and the chances of encountering another vehicle at an intersection are smaller. (In Boise, you do have more of a rectilinear street grid with traffic lights, so it is more like local conditions than rural Idaho.)

    Bottom line, Idaho and Boston are different places with vastly different density and typical road design.

    As a result, we can’t take Idaho experience and transfer it wholesale to Boston. Since data is our most powerful tool for making rational decisions, though, it would be great to gain some insight on safety and behavior in Idaho and see what we can learn. Unfortunately, I can’t immediately find any peer reviewed studies covering this topic. The League of American Bicyclists points off to couple of what appear to be student-level reports which do favor the law from a safety point of view, but data and analysis are certainly lacking.

    One paper, the Meggs study, also touches on the convenience aspect of the Idaho stop. On this point I don’t think there’s a question: from a convenience and headway point of view, it’s better for bicyclists to have to yield. And that’s important. But that’s different than saying it’s safer. We should keep the two separate.

    Perhaps the bigger news is that San Francisco is considering adopting the Idaho stop. Well, actually, something like the Idaho stop. San Francisco proposes to de-prioritize enforcement of cyclists stopping at stop signs. It would not apply to red lights (except turns, maybe). Because the underlying state laws would remain the same (for now at least), the cyclist’s legal obligations would remain the same as now.

    One things to know about San Francisco is that it has a heck of a lot of four-way stop intersections on a regular street grid, even on major roadways. Full stop laws mean a lot of full stops for cyclists: one per block. That’s why the protests in SF happen at the Wiggle, which is mostly four-way intersections, many on hills.

    In SF, the primary reason for the consideration of “stop equals yield” for cyclists is convenience, even bordering on obvious practicality. It isn’t primarily about safety. But it turns out that four-way stops on a grid like SF’s would be the safest location for “stop equals yield”, because the crossing vehicles are expected to stop and check for visibility. That wouldn’t be true at red lights, which is why that isn’t part of the SF proposal, and it wouldn’t be true in most of Boston where all-way stops on regular street grids aren’t that common.

    So yes, let’s have a discussion about the Idaho stop in Boston, let’s use what we know from other locations to guide us, but let’s also acknowledge that other places are different from Boston in very clear ways that have a major impact on both the safety and convenience aspects of the proposal.

    Now, let’s get to you, personally, not stopping for a red light. If the situation was as you described (you looked for cross traffic but didn’t say you stopped), you actually would have violated Idaho state law (which requires full stop at traffic signals) and the proposed SF ordinance (which doesn’t apply to red lights). Scofflaw!

    You claimed " It’s a busy street and it’s a lot safer to cross when there are no cars." This statement is your anecdotal assessment, for the cars and pedestrians you can see. Almost every crash I’ve been in or almost been in during my years of riding and driving has come from hazards I didn’t see. Self-assessment of safety is everyone’s ultimate last defense, but in the urban environment it is insufficient and incomplete to protect either ourselves or those around us on the road. Uniform well-considered regulations are an important part of encouraging safe behavior where individual assessment fails or needs help.

    In another context, one of the arguments that parents use to justify driving their kids to school is safety. We know the data proves otherwise (for child, the parent driver, and other kids in the neighborhood and near the school). Should we defer to the parent’s heartfelt but factually incorrect evaluation of personal safety? They may passionately argue, “but I’ve never had an accident or hit another kid!” We need something more to rely on than just personal assessment for the day-to-day.

    You say: “About a half-dozen cyclists have been killed over the past few years by cars, or trucks, or buses. None of them were running a red light. In fact, several of them were going straight towards a green light when they got hit.” True. That means there are hazards we need to try to address, warnings we need to get out to both drivers and cyclists. How does that have to do with you running the red light, a different potential hazard? The plural of anecdote isn’t data, and neither is its contrapositive.

    It would be interesting to see how many of those crashes could possibly have been prevented had “red equals yield” been in effect. At least we could conjecture about those crashes. It is harder to predict how many more crashes would occur from yielding errors should “red equals yield”. It might be a minimal number, but we don’t know. I worry most about “stop equals yield” becoming “yield equals slow down a little” in practice, particularly around pedestrians.

    Finally, it should be clear that liability, not just legal penalty, falls on the cyclist who violates traffic control. Uniform signs, signals, and regulations protect us from liability should something happen that we don’t intend. As I said, all of us have the ultimate ability to take safety decisions into our hands, regardless of the law. But responsibility and liability for our decisions go hand in hand with that power.

    There is a temptation to seek safety by doing what we think is best. But there is also safety in everyone following uniform rules. The balance changes when we act not just out of safety, but out of our own convenience. There are other ways to address inconvenience. For instance, cities should adopt Cambridge’s practice of using loop detectors only to modify the length of time of traffic signals so that each direction of traffic always gets at least some of the time. We should look at every stop sign to see if it is necessary, and use yield signs or more appropriate traffic calming when appropriate.

    Let’s keep working together to find the best answers to making our streets safer, and convenient as possible, for everyone.

    Thanks Steve!
    Mike Halle
  • commented 2016-01-20 11:40:48 -0500
    I have had a similar discussion with police in Boston, Sudbury and Concord. (At no time was I about to get a ticket; I was in a casual conversation with the officer each time.) I have never collided with a motor vehicle when I have been ahead or behind it on the road. All collisions, actual or potential (being sideswiped, hit from behind, doored, or about to be right-hooked), have been when me and my bicycle have been to the side of the vehicle. In the interest of self-preservation I stop at red signals and look at the traffic. If the intersection is clear and I see no possibility of inconveniencing other road users, I proceed across the intersection. Sure, there are some intersections where I will wait for the full duration of the red cycle, Walden Street/MA-126 and MA-2 for example (but you have to push the pedestrian signal, even my ancient steel-frame bike does not trip the light). Keeping ahead of the traffic with a short headstart before the green light gives me a better chance of being seen on the road. You can’t be too visible. I do find it amusing, in a twisted sort of way, that drivers will yell obscenities at me when I go through a red signal, and shout the same obscenities as I remain stopped ahead of them at a red light. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.