A reader writes:
This Idaho law is how I’ve always ridden my bike – safely, but within reason. It takes a lot of effort to get a bike started from a dead stop – far more than a car – and so often there’s no reason to have stopped (no traffic). I am teaching my eight year old the same method of slow, look, listen, verify – then go, if all is clear. I think that not only does it promote independent thinking (vs. “I must stop at every single red octagon”), it keeps you more aware of your surroundings and focused on the moment. And it’s for this same reason that I prefer the roundabout intersections in my town; you can’t interact with Twitter, email, Facebook, IMs or other distractions in a roundabout situation.
But most of the reader responses were critical of the Idaho stop:
Oh, bullshit. Living in the heart of San Francisco, where bikes are rampant, and the de facto reality is the Idaho stop, I can tell you that the utopian formula you support – “a stop sign is a yield, a red light is a stop sign” – is utter bullshit in practice. In reality, your formula actually means “blow through any stop sign at full speed as if you owned the road, whether there are cars or pedestrians there or not, but slow down slightly for red lights, stopping only if absolutely necessary.”
I can’t tell you the number of times as pedestrians we’ve almost been run down, or the number of times as drivers we’ve been forced to stand on the brakes after entering an intersection only to have a cyclist blow through out of nowhere at 30 mph. Perhaps things are more highly evolved back there in DC, but out here in SF it’s open religious warfare: bikers vs motorists. Motorists, you see, are evil:
carbon-crunching troglodytes from a dead and dying past; they deserve neither courtesy nor consideration. Whereas bikers are holy: righteous riders of the low-carbon future – and as such, immune not only from the laws of man, but of fate as well – Sure! Drag that baby through heavy down-town traffic behind your bike in that darling little bike trailer! The little orange flag will protect her! That, and your pristine holiness. It. Is. Insane.
Don’t get me wrong: Bikes are the future. Cars aren’t. But Idaho is not SF, or DC. It’s the fourteenth largest state geographically, at 83,570 square miles, but has only 1.5 million people – less than a fifth of the Bay Area population. What works in Idaho doesn’t translate trouble-free into SF, and I doubt it would into DC either.
From another part of the country:
Ugh, this “Idaho stop” is just legitimizing my biggest annoyance with sharing the road with bicycles. I really try to be respectful of bicycles on the road. I recognize their right to be there, and the fact that they are very exposed and certain to get the worst of any collision with my car. The state law down here in Louisiana says that if you’re passing a biker, you need to give them a three-foot cushion, which makes plenty of sense. But the reality of that law, especially in a dense urban setting like New Orleans, is that quite often I’m stuck behind a bicycle for long stretches going seven miles per hour because there isn’t enough room to pass. Eventually there will a break in traffic or parked cars or whatever, enough that the biker can veer over a bit and/or I can get around them, but it’s really frustrating to be stuck moving so slowly.
And this Idaho stop thing just means that even if I manage to pass them (legally), at the next red light they’re going to pass me, and I’m going to be stuck behind them all over again. This already happens reasonably often, since plenty of bikers happily ignore the current laws, but making it legal and more common is just going to aggravate drivers even more. I know some bike riders are all for aggravating drivers, since they see this whole thing as some sort of holy war, but I don’t think this world needs any extra road rage.
Another shows a little bit of rage:
I work in midtown Manhattan, and I can’t cross the street during the day without swiveling my head around like Linda Blair in “The Exorcist” because a deliveryman on a bicycle is going the wrong way up a one-way street, running a red light, and would plow into me if I weren’t paying enough attention for the two of us. This happens literally every day, often multiple times (and I understand these guys are underpaid, but if they were being paid more, I think they’d still do it just because they could).
From my perspective, “Idaho stops” send exactly the wrong message because a lot of bicyclists already think they’re above the law, and softening it specifically for them only reinforces their sense of entitlement. Red lights and stop signs are already optional for too many of them, and one-way streets apparently are for the little people. And, by the way, I’ve never seen one of them ticketed, ever.
A pedestrian’s view:
I walk almost everywhere, or use mass transit. I’ve been clipped at least a half dozen times by cyclists who just don’t care to watch for pedestrians. Once, my 3-year-old daughter was knocked to the ground by a cyclist running through a stop sign. My pedestrian friends can add dozens of similar stories of cyclists paying them no mind. I am unconvinced that an Idaho stop is safer or reasonable when considering cars. Until, as a class, cyclists actually start respecting pedestrians in our city, I am utterly convinced that an Idaho stop will just allow the already militant cyclists in our city to further ignore pedestrians and run us down.
Another introduces another type of vehicle:
I must respectfully disagree about the changing rules for bicyclists when it comes to stop signs and lights. Certainly, bikes have greater fields of view than most cars, but then so do motorcycles. Should motorcycles be allowed to glide through stop signs? My current car, a Scion, has worse visibility than my old one, an old Ford Escort station wagon. Should I have to stop for longer in one car than the other?
Nope. Because uniform rules of the road are the safest for ALL the people using the roads. If cyclists want to share the road (and based on all the complaining I hear from cyclists friends, they do), they have to follow the rules we put on vehicles. Period.
A different view to balance things out a little:
For the drivers who might complain that bicycles should adhere to the same laws as cars, I should note that less than 1% of the drivers I encounter at four-way stops actually come to a complete stop. And they are still going faster when they “pause” on through than I am when I slow down on my bike. This isn’t to excuse the cyclists who fly right through them – they’re assholes and they should be ticketed. They give law-abiding cyclists a bad name and they’re doing something both stupid and incredibly dangerous. Last year I nearly creamed some idiot flying through a stop sign (while he was taking a left, because YOLO I guess) after I had come to a complete stop.
Anyway, in addition to adjusting the cycling laws, a little more mutual respect between bikers and drivers could make a huge difference and save lives.
Another reader brings philosophy into the discussion:
In a college ethics course years ago, taught by a Jesuit, a similar situation was discussed – crossing against the light. He explained that, if a cop stopped us for that, we might justify ourselves with the principle of epikaia: “Epikeia says that a general rule must be applied to a particular situation … taking into consideration all circumstances” and, “For the great canonists of the Middle Ages, epikaia was justice sweetened with mercy.”
In other words, the purpose of this particular law is to regulate traffic so as to avoid collisions. If there’s no oncoming traffic, you can go ahead and cross against the light.
Another brings in some humor:
Seems to me that people driving cars could use some similar rules. A friend of mine told a good story. One day in San Francisco, he rolled through a stop sign, albeit in a car. A cop stopped him and was going to give him a ticket when my friend said, “Officer, I swear that stop sign was green when I went through it.” The cop laughed and let him off.