There’s nothing like the mention of a bicycle to draw hundreds of reader comments, and a fairly common one faults cyclists for “blowing through stop signs.” Not long ago somebody wrote, “Do they have to stop at stop signs or is that just drivers?”
The answer is: in an around Washington the laws say they do have to stop. Today’s question is, should they? Turns out, that’s debatable. And it’s not a new debate.
For 32 years, bicyclists in Idaho have been allowed by law to slow down at stop signs, check for cars and pedestrians, and they continue pedaling if the coast is clear. Treating a stop sign as though it were a yield sign now is known as an “Idaho stop.”
They are illegal in D.C., Maryland and Virginia, but cyclists are seen rolling through stop signs with the same frequency as drivers rolling through right-turns-on-red, when they’re supposed to come to a complete halt.
Joseph Stromberg, a blogger for Vox, explained the Idaho stop earlier this year.
“While it’s obviously reckless for them to blow through an intersection when they don’t have the right of way, research and common sense say that slowly rolling through a stop sign on a bike shouldn’t be illegal in the first place,” he wrote.
Stromberg pointed to research by a physics professor who determined that a bicyclist who rolls through a stop sign at 5 miles an hour uses 25 percent less energy in regaining full speed.
“For drivers, the idea of cyclists rolling through an intersection without fully stopping might sound dangerous — but because of their slower speed and wider field of vision (compared to cars), cyclists are generally able to assess whether there’s oncoming traffic and make the right decision. Even law-abiding urban bikers already do this all the time: because of the worry that cars might not see a bike, cyclists habitually scan for oncoming traffic even at intersections where they don’t have a stop sign so they can brake at the last second just in case.
“The Idaho stop, if legalized and widely adopted, would also make bikes more predictable. Currently, when a bike and a car both pull up to a four-way stop, an awkward dance often ensues. Even when cars get there first, drivers often try to give bikers the right-of-way, perhaps because they think the cyclist is going to ride through anyway. If the cyclist logically waits, both parties end up sitting there, urging the other to go on. In the opposite (and rarer) scenario, both people assume the other will wait, leading to a totally unnecessary accident.
“An Idaho stop would put an end to this madness: the first vehicle to come to the intersection always has the right of way, giving bikers a rule they’d actually follow, making them more predictable for drivers.”
Stromberg said that since 1982, bike accident injuries have declined in Idaho. And when Boise was compared to two similar-sized cities in California, it had vastly fewer bike accidents.
Washington isn’t Boise, a city of 205,000 people, but it has plenty of stop signs, plenty of drivers and plenty of cyclists.