California and the Idaho Stop Sign Law

I wrote the following in late January in response to a Handlebar post asking if Davis Bicycles! should consider lending its support to any state legislation that would, if passed, allow cyclists to treat “Stop” signs as “Yield” signs as is currently the law in Idaho. State Senator Lowenthal was reportedly thinking of authoring such a bill. Although the deadline for introducing new bills this session has since passed, such a provision could be amended later into an existing bill.

At the time I wrote this post, I was not aware that Sen. Lowenthal was not considering including the other major provision of the Idaho law that allows cyclists to treat red lights as stop signs. I have left my critique of this law in my comments below because someone would likely ask about it, and there’s certainly the possibility that any attempt to enact similar legislation in California might include both provisions. To read the complete text of the Idaho law, visit

http://legislature.idaho.gov/idstat/Title49/T49CH7SECT49-720.htm

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At the risk of becoming a pariah among local cycling advocates, I have to respectfully disagree with efforts to support the enactment of the “Idaho law” in California. And let me preface my comments by explaining that I am a daily cyclist (for over 40 years) who always stops at stop signs and always waits for the green light. However, I do admit that at stop signs I will often slow VERY perceptibly, almost to a full stop, before entering the intersection. While I know this violates the letter of the law, I also know that almost no motorists come to complete stops at stop signs unless there is cross traffic to wait for. I think this is acceptable, and apparently so does law enforcement, because virtually all of us who drive do the same –often in full view of traffic officers –and are never stopped for it. Cyclists need not be held to a higher standard than motorists in this situation. It’s akin to driving 70 mph when the posted limit is 65 mph. That minor “indiscretion” is clearly acceptable to virtually every police officer, judge and jury. Same goes with the stop sign situation. I know that some cyclists have been stopped and cited by police for not putting a foot down to the pavement at a stop sign, but those rare instances are the actions of abusive or ignorant officers and I don’t believe they are such common occurrences to warrant a “solution” like the Idaho law.

The main reasons that such a law is often advocated by some cyclists are these: (1) it would decriminalize existing, common behavior among many cyclists, (2) cyclists would save energy by not having to stop and start at every stop sign, and (3) cyclists would save time by not having to wait for the green light at every encounter with a red light. The latter two reasons are tempting to some because the energy saved is our own –fatigue is reduced or at least delayed; and saving time when engaging in a travel mode that is not particularly fast as compared with motorized transportation may be enticing.

The extent that stopping is a burden to cyclists is up to the individual. I’ve never considered it to be a problem. If I wasn’t fit enough to start and stop multiple times when riding, perhaps I shouldn’t be on a pedal-bike. And if the delay of waiting for a green light slows me down too much, maybe I should consider a faster mode. Most of us don’t choose cycling because it’s the quickest way from point A to B.

All that being said, I do think a good argument can be made for replacing many stop signs with yield signs signalized intersections with roundabouts.

It has also been argued by some that the Idaho law would create more predictable cyclist behavior. I think that’s illogical. At present when I observe a cyclist approaching a stop sign, I may be unsure what he is going to do. How would that be any different under the new law? I still wouldn’t know what he’d do. In fact, I’d be less sure. I guess I could just predict that whatever he did, he’d be within the law (assuming he really treated a stop sign as a yield sign and behaved accordingly –remember, there are legal and illegal ways to treat a yield sign).

And, where there is a reasonable level of traffic enforcement for all modes (e.g. when one of the Davis bicycle officers is patrolling downtown Davis), it’s pretty easy to predict behavior by most cyclists.

Here’s a scenario to consider: a cyclist approaches a red light (under the Idaho law). She stops, looks both ways, and decides to cross or turn left on the red light. Unbeknownst to her, motor traffic on her left or across the intersection has just gotten a green left turn arrow. Conflict (or worse) occurs. She wasn’t aware of that because many such signals are not visible to the cross traffic because there’s no reason for them to be when all traffic is supposed to obey them according to the same black and white rules.  I suppose you could argue that a prudent cyclist would not cross on the red light under the circumstance where there was cross traffic waiting to turn left across her path. But how many of us would make that determination under those circumstances?

My observation of the “judgment” used by many cyclists when choosing to ignore stop signs or red lights is that they often make very poor and dangerous decisions. Making such behavior “legal” won’t reduce the danger to them or others.

Another point to consider: the maturity and traffic experience to make the right decision to treat a stop as a yield or a red light as a stop sign safely is certainly within the grasp of many of us. However, as noted above, not every adult has such maturity, experience or good judgment. Most importantly –ANYONE, no matter what age and what level of experience, can ride a bike on public streets. Do you think that the typical 8-year old can make such decisions safely? I can imagine many kids emulating the behavior of adult cyclists under such a law and following careless cyclists into intersections under conditions in which the child will be in significantly more danger than the adult (visibility, speed, skill to avoid a collision, etc.). A uniform, unambiguous set of laws that apply to all road users is easier for a child to understand.

Sometimes the argument is made that cyclists should get these advantages because they’re doing the “right thing” environmentally and such. One could also argue that motorists could save a lot of fuel, money and reduce emissions if they could do the same. The “bike advocate” counters that allowing motorists to behave in this manner is too dangerous because of the potentially significant injuries, even fatalities, which might ensue.

So, if cyclists are allowed to engage in what may be riskier behavior (treating stops as yields, red lights as stop signs), the worst case scenario is that a few more cyclists may get hurt, but such incidents are only their own fault. How ridiculous is that? Imagine the reaction of the motorist who kills a cyclist, especially a child, who uses poor judgment under this law? And consider the costs to society of any serious injury. Furthermore, in a collision between a cyclist and a pedestrian, the pedestrian may be more likely to suffer serious injury. Will cyclists properly yield to pedestrians when “running” red lights and stop signs?

In conclusion, I think cycling advocates should be very cautious about pursuing such a change in the California Vehicle Code. It runs counter to the principles of vehicular cycling and also violates one of the primary elements of traffic safety: predictability. It would be better if cyclists used their energy and resources to advocate for more education for cyclists and motorists, pushed for more rational policies about the installation of stop signs and traffic signals when yield signs and roundabouts may be the safer alternatives, and encouraged more enforcement by police officers better informed about traffic law as it pertains to cyclists. Is it really all that onerous to stop at stop signs and red lights?

“It’s not the type of bicyclist that determines conflict and risk; it is the type of bicycling behavior.  It doesn’t matter how many years and miles I’ve biked; if I do something contrary to the way vehicles normally operate I will increase my risk.”  –Mighk Wilson

“Cyclists fare best when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles.” –John Forester

-David Takemoto-Weerts

David has been the UC Davis Bicycle Coordinator since 1987 and became a dedicated cyclist one fine spring morning in 1968 on the narrow, winding roads of the Santa Cruz Mountains.

5 Responses to “California and the Idaho Stop Sign Law”


  • Has anyone noticed this new sign being proposed by Gary Lauder? It’s half stop sign / half yield (stop only if other traffic is present). Seems like it might solve our bicycling issue and have multiple benefits to auto energy consumption too. His full presentation is at http://www.ted.com/talks/gary_lauder_s_new_traffic_sign_take_turns.html

  • The situation is that many if not most cyclist don’t respect all the laws to the letter because they are overprotecting. If you want the most safe solution, just make all cycling illegal. Many cyclist die even following the law.

    The change in law will not affect greatly the amount of risky behavior. But will help two people:

    (a) the guy that ignored the law because it was safe to do so, but yet got a ticket from an overzealous officer.

    (b) the law abiding cyclist that rides a deserted road and yet stops at every sign and waits at every traffic light for no reason, really, from the safety point of view. This guy has to stand watching other cyclists passing by him … illegally but not less safely.

    About the concern posted above, that children and others may need a more clear black and white laws, one may solve the issue by formulating the law so that it is still overprotecting as before, but with a caveat that solves the problems (a) and (b) above.

    For example: Cyclists should stop in all stops, and will not cross on a red light. Cyclists would be granted exception to these requirement if it can be shown the following stringent conditions applies to him/her:
    (a) he/she treated the stop as a yield sign in a satisfying way, (b) he/she has considerable experience (c) he/she is reasonably safety conscious, (d) he/she shows enough maturity and knowledge to make the judgement of not stopping.

    The result is that you can teach children and other immature people can be taught the first part of the law, and tell them there could be some exceptions to it that are hard to prove or meet and is better not to go there, specially if you are not riding with a lawyer on your back and the lawyer had enough time to advice you on weather to stop or not. I think this is easy to understand.

    But it will allow law abiding cyclists that are mature, confident and cautious in cases where the practice is obviously safe to give some permissions to themselves and avoid getting angry about their more “free-thinking peers”.

    It will also allow some protection against overzealous/idiotic officers. Policemen will be instructed not to stop bikes for formal offenses unless they are behaving in a risky way by the officer judgement.

    I believe that ideally rules in general should be applied with some discretion and good judgement. Unfortunately, good judgement is not as omnipresent as we would like in our ideal world, so we make black and white rules. But that doesn’t mean we should abandon our ideals.

    As a final note, I end with this anecdote. I am riding a bike in a Canadian winter (Toronto). It is freezing, I just want to go home. A main road, but deserted. Another bike rides by me and overcomes me. He stops at the traffic light. I run the red light, past him. Light turns green, and he again overcomes me and shouts at me that this is illegal! Again he gets to another red light and stops. Then I arrive stops by him.

    This one is a T-junction. The side road, perpendicular to our main road, was a small road with clear visibility. No cars anywhere.

    Three pedestrians were crossing this side road. ILEGALY of course, because while we had red light on the main road, the side road had green lights for cars, so pedestrians had red light.

    So I talk to the cyclist that shout at me. And tell him – look pedestrians are crossing. He said they might get a ticked too. So I slowly and run the red light and ride ALONGSIDE the pedestrians! Even if a car would suddenly come from the side road, it would hit the pedestrians before me.

    Light turns green and the other cyclist again overcomes me. He shouts me “Ass-hole!”.

    I think we both me and him suffered from the situation. Some will say the solution is that I respect the law. I don’t agree because prefer to suffer a bit of shouting and arriving my warm blanket earlier, and I also avoid feeling dumb facing the wind in the red lights in a deserted road.

    What shines in my story is the lack of safety issues involved. Enough said.

  • What makes case for the Idaho law so compelling is the large majority of cyclists who have great difficulty in following the California laws. These are people who are otherwise law-abiding citizens.

    The current California road use laws were conceived and designed for cars, not bicycles. In applying them to bicycles, the state is trying to push a square peg through a round hole. The laws just don’t fit, and they aren’t necessary.

    The notion of cyclists asking for or getting more than motorists is specious. It would be a fair argument if all things were equal, but all things aren’t equal. The 250 horse-power car weighs 2000lb and travels at 25+ mph on city roads. It takes some time to stop this vehicle. A 0.25 horse-power bicycle weighs 25lb, travels at 15 mph and at that speed can stop on a dime. Safe traffic flow conditions, for which the stop sign/light laws were designed, differ between bicycles and cars.

    Your argument that risk is increased by allowing cyclists to pass through a red stop light is flawed. On a road with a bike lane, left-turning motorists will not enter the bike lane, so a collision there would be highly unlikely. The motorists will usually be accelerating from a standstill, in which case they will have greater awareness of other junction users, as well as lower speeds. Even if there is no bike lane safety is not significantly compromised, especially if the motorist expects cyclists to be in the junction. If both cyclist and car driver are turning left, in turn-controlled lanes, it will be the same situation only the cyclist would be expected to yield to the motorist.

    We don’t quite know what it would be like if the Idaho law were implemented in California. Most probably, like any new system, it would require some adjustments after initial implementation.

    I cannot see how it would be any worse than it is at present.

    I consider you to be an exceptional cyclist. I live in San Francisco and consider a bicycle trip to be less time consuming that a car trip to many parts of the city. I know I am not a minority in this view. Neither am I a minority in my discomfort at stopping for red lights, then having to re-accelerate to my 15-20 mph cruising speed. And I’m a strong rider who can complete a solo century ride in under six hours – provided there aren’t too many stop signs and stop lights.

    I see no value to cyclists in your position. In fact I regard your stance as one that hinders the progress and spread of cycling as a transportation mode.

    Let’s say there were no cars. Given a volume of bicycles similar to the volume of cars on the road, junction control devices would be almost entirely Yield signs. In this case the flow of traffic would be much smoother. This is what cycling advocates should be pushing for. They should not be attempting to force a square peg into a round hole.

  • I have never heard of the Idaho law before, but it sounds like an excellent idea. I live in California and was given a ticket for not stopping completely at a stop sign this week when biking to work. It was a clear and sunny morning, the intersection was open with no hidden corners, and not a car in sight anywhere. I am 50 years old and bike to work almost every day, I always stop at red lights and do my best to obey the rules, but stopping completely in such a situation just feels like idiocy. Had the Idaho law been in place, it would have saved me from a very bad experience. The idea you seem to advocate, that the present rules are are ok, because most traffic officers will not enforce them strictly is flawed. First, it leads to arbitrariness if the law is enforced at some places, and not at other places. Secondly, to claim that the present rules are ok but you don’t have to obey them is not very logical, and is very insulting to people who actually have to follow them.

  • I’m of the opinion that the Idaho law and other laws that allow less rigorous adherence to traffic laws to be counter productive. Stop signs and red lights are liked by no one, but they do provide some order in a dangerous world.

    Most of who have been riding for any length of time has witnessed the driver of a car violate one of these simple laws. I believe most of us who have seen such a violation has also witnessed an angry scream, an indelicate epithet or vulger gesture directed to the driver committing the offense. We all say that we want our equal rights on the road.

    If we want the same vehicular rights as drivers, we have to agree to follow the same laws as drivers.

    While stopped for a red light one day last week a rider went cruising through the intersection. I commented to a women rider also waiting that I felt it was dangerous and insulting for the rider to have run the light. She disagreed and stated that she was angry that the other rider wasn’t wearing a helmet, but felt he had the right to run the light.

    I don’t understand why we should have the legal authority to run red lights and stop signs whey other legal users must stop.

    Legal is legal and on the roads it’s nearly always attempt at being safe.

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