A proposal before the D.C. Council would permit bicyclists to yield instead of stopping at stop signs and red lights – when safe – without getting ticketed.
The measure, part of the Bicycle and Pedestrian Act of 2015, is in response to demands from an increasing number of bicyclists in the city seeking greater protections and access to the road.
It’s part of a set of bills the Council is considering that officials say are aimed at making city roads safer for all users, chiefly the most vulnerable— pedestrians and bicyclists— amid rising concerns of traffic deaths. Also under consideration are measures targeting distracted, aggressive and drunk drivers with heftier penalties and requiring the city to publish crash data and produce reports on locations of dangerous collisions.
If approved, the District would join a handful of jurisdictions nationwide that allow bicyclists to roll through traffic signs. Idaho adopted a bike yield law in the 1980’s allowing cyclists to use stop signs as yields and red lights as stop signs, and in recent years some jurisdictions in Colorado have allowed yield at stop signs. San Francisco is considering a similar measure.
The D.C. Council Committee on Transportation and the Environment held a public hearing on its legislation Tuesday.
But while advocates for bicyclists support the measure, others say that allowing cyclists to abide by a separate set of rules makes them less predictable and less safe.
“We teach our children when the light is red we stop. We teach them when they see a sign that says stop to stop. We teach them to look both ways before they cross the street. We teach them to cross at the crosswalk. Now we are beginning to say follow those rules except if there’s no one around, you can run across the street anyway,” Wayne McOwen, executive director of the District of Columbia Insurance Federation said at the hearing.
The Metropolitan Police Department also isn’t fond of the idea. Assistant Police Chief Lamar Greene said at the hearing that such a law could be confusing to motorists and other road users, and that the city should take into consideration inexperienced and young riders and their inability to make decisions when they get to busy intersections.
“This is a matter of convenience for cyclists. It’s not a matter of safety,” he said. “In fact in a highly populated environment like Washington, D.C., this could potentially lead to more cyclist injuries, pedestrian injuries, by not stopping at stop signs or red lights.”
Supporters say the proposal would apply to quiet residential areas where under current law cyclists are required to stop even when there’s no one around. In most cases, the policy is already not being followed or enforced, they said, and changing it would allow law enforcement to focus on real risks.
“In some respect this is how our streets are operating,” said Gregory Billing, executive director of Washington Area Bicyclists Association. “On neighborhood streets where there’s a stop sign and nobody is present, does anybody know if a bicyclist rolls through a stop sign when no one is there?
“In all other circumstances what is currently illegal… will remain enforceable,” Billing said. “What we want to focus on is behaviors that have potential to harm or significantly injure other people.”
But critics say it should be up to law enforcement experts to opine whether it makes sense to give cyclists such liberties on the road. “I think it’s a slippery slope in a sense that you are setting yourself up for a liability issue that doesn’t have to be,” McOwen said.
Supporters point to research indicating that the proposal could potentially help improve safety. A study of the Idaho law by researchers at the University of California Berkeley School of Public Health found that a year after it was implemented there was a slight drop in bicycle injury collisions.
David Cranor, acting chair of the D.C. Bicycle Advisory Council, said the theory is that the change in policy encouraged cyclists to switch to slower, less transited routes that they previously avoided because of the numerous traffic stops. The law, Cranor said, also allows the police to target the enforcement of dangerous behavior instead of focusing on ticketing riders at stop signs on deserted roads.
Council member Mary Cheh (D), chair of the transportation committee, said in moving forward the proposal the city would need to identify what kind of educational campaign it would need to ensure bike users follow the policy.
The package of proposed regulations is viewed as a first step in tackling rising road safety concerns.
At the request of Mayor Muriel Bowser (D), the Council is also considering a Vision Zero law that would require anyone convicted of certain drunk driving offenses to install an ignition interlock device and would toughen penalties for repeated drunk driving offenders. The proposal also calls for a “complete streets” plan that prioritizes pedestrians, transit users, bicycles, and cars in designing infrastructure.
The Bicycle and Pedestrian Safety Act would also require training for drivers-for-hire in specific traffic concepts, including the rights and safety of pedestrians and bicyclists, and would provide an escalating series of fines for repeat offenders of serious driving violations, including entering crosswalks, crossing through a red light, failing to yield the right of way, or parking or idling on a sidewalk or bike lane.
Another proposal would amend the distracted driver law by introducing an escalating series of fines for repeated violations within an 18-month period, including suspension of the driver’s license for the third violation.
Drivers would also need to pay attention to a measure that would set a minimum $150 fine for failing to pull over to the curb or yield to an emergency vehicle. Such a violation would also cost a motorist six points on their driver’s license.