It’s All About ‘Right of Way’

Background Reading


A fellow in my bike club who should know better has made the assertion that not stopping for stop signs is not the biggest problem with local bike rides by roadies. He in fact has ridden almost a dozen of rides with this group this year. I have seen them riding through town ignoring stop signs and Goodness knows what else. This sort of excuse for bad behavior is not new. Randy Cohen made a living providing rationales to for folks to do this sort of thing and still feel good about themselves. I find the exercise tiresome and silly.

But what really stuck in my craw was the fact that this same person is constantly sending out alerts for trail conditions that are intended to be followed so as to prevent damage to the trail. I asked myself why would someone who has excused for not following legally established precedents for road usage expect everyone else how to honor trail alerts?

Is There Ever A Time When We Just Have To 'Do The Right Thing'?

Is There Ever A Time When We Just Have To ‘Do The Right Thing’?

Pushback From A Friend

I got pushback from John Riley. He happens to side with my fellow club member. Here is the conversation that ensued:

John Riley Faulty analogy.

Eric Vann Actually, it is a real question, not an analogy. A club member who feels traffic signals and signs are optional heads up our mountain biking group. He does not feel that erosion alerts should have optional compliance. Do you think his notion is correct?

John Riley Some aspects of traffic law are debatable. That is why we are debating them. An Idaho stop is only legal in Idaho, for the time being. But it is conceivable that it might become legal in other places.

In the meantime, does real damage occur when you do an Idaho stop outside of Idaho? Real damage _does_ occur when riders ignore trail erosion alerts.

John is demonstrating a basic lack of understanding about the nature of the law. Performing an illegal maneuver like crossing an intersection on a red light is not like playing shirts and skins basketball. You do not get to call out “no harm, no foul“. Upon entering that intersection you have broken a law.

Eric Vann Actually there are several instances in which running red lights have caused death. The most notable in our area was a Catholic Priest from Wisconsin. He was struck and killed when he failed to wait for a green light. The incident was written up in two lengthy reports by the Bike Federation of Wisconsin on their blog. Because he was the one at fault no ticket was issue to the driver.

So in answer to you assertion that no real damage occurs when you do not stop for red lights outside of Idaho, the answer is a big fat, yes the hell it does!

John Riley Idaho stop means treating a stop sign as a yield sign. It does not mean ignoring it.

Again John is wrong about the nature of the Idaho Stop. The law itself deals not only with stop signs, but also stop lights.

Eric Vann There is no evidence that he completed ignored the traffic control. The police report however places him at fault. But the nuances are less important here than the fact he was in an intersection where his presence was not anticipated. Executing an ‘Idaho Stop’ or any other illegal maneuver is deadly. There is no getting around that point. In Chicago last year a cyclist did essentially the same thing and was killed. Again the cops could not charge the driver because he was at fault. Being somewhere that a driver does not expect you to be can in fact get you killed.

Eric Vann
According to this blog report there are TWO distinct actions allowed with respect to an ‘Idaho Stop’. The first is that a stop may be treated as a YIELD sign. The second is that a red light may be treated as a STOP sign. Either way outside of Idaho executing either puts the driver on the defensive because he does not expect your presence.

John Riley I would say if someone got hit when they did not have right of way, that is evidence of ignoring the traffic control. I.e. they did not yield.

The principle of right of way remains in all cases.

It is precisely because the principle of “right of way” is paramount that his argument that one should be able to cross an intersection without having caused damage is incorrect. Take for instance the “Failure to Yield Right of Way” law for Wisconsin:

Red light
Vehicles facing a red light must stop before entering the crosswalk on the near side of an intersection or if none, then before entering the intersection and remain stopped until a green light or other signal permits you to go.

  • No pedestrian or bicyclist facing such a signal should enter the roadway unless he or she can do so safely and without interfering with any vehicular traffic.
  • Vehicles facing a red light at an intersection may, after stopping, cautiously make a right turn into the nearest available lane for traffic moving to the right or turn left from a one-way highway into the nearest available lane of a one-way highway on which vehicular traffic travels to the left.
  • In making a turn on a red light, traffic must yield the right-of-way to pedestrians and bicyclists within a crosswalk and to other traffic using the intersection.

The secondary references are attempting to deal with the “Right Turn On Red” exception to the red light law. But when you attempt to cross an intersection on a red light you have broken the law with respect to “yielding the right-of-way“. This is why when you successfully cross through the intersection and are stopped by a police officer he has the power to write a ticket.

Sometimes cyclists (and I fear John is in this category) think that you could do a Ted Nugent-style trick.  For instance you could fire a full clip of bullets above the heads of a group of black children in a playground and while not hitting any claim that you should be released since you did not hit anyone. Or perhaps these same cyclists think that if you act as a terrorist in a sleeper cell here in the United States you cannot be held accountable if you poison the water supply but no one drinks that water and thus does not get sick and die.

In either case it would be your intention that mattered not whether you caused any actual harm. In fact one could make the case that riding over a trail despite a “trail alert” following heavy rains did not have to yield any damage. It would I suppose be the thinking that you would have to wait to see if permanent damage resulted from what you did before you could be fined or otherwise held accountable.

This is the sort of thinking that makes this notion of not being held accountable for “failing to yield the right-of-way” because no accident resulted so very, very silly. That is not the kind of world we live in nor should we want to.

Eric Vann

In the article I have cited you can read all the details gathered by the folks who actually investigated the accident involving the priest.

Any kind of ‘Outside Idaho Stop’ for want of a better name is problematic because it involves two variables:

  1. The first is that the driver is not expecting your presence
  2. We only have the rider’s judgment that he was yielding

The rider might indeed be in the clear in one moment and then a driver rounds the bend (or whatever) and suddenly spots that slow moving cyclist in his headlights and suddenly there is a fatal accident.

Trying to split hairs regarding arguments over “right of way” is silly. You have no right of way ever, when you are crossing against the light outside of Idaho. And even in Idaho, having the right of way is a judgment call by the cyclist. And that could be faulty depending on his eyesight and awareness of his surroundings or something as simple as suddenly stopping to pick up a dropped water bottle or whatever.

The closing rates of cars is pretty tremendous when compared with that of a bicycle. Getting through an intersection even at the best of times is problematic. But when you are doing the crossing without benefit of expectation by the driver a sane person would have to admit that all bets are off as to whether the driver will see you in time.

Many a cyclist has died while crossing an intersection during a low sun situation (when the driver is blinded) or when the rider assumes that they are visible in the dark.

Recent studies indicate that we are far less visible than we think we are even when wearing what we think is highly visible clothing. It would appear to depend not only on the reflectivity of the clothing but the low light vision of the driver.

Again, when everyone is not on the same page things can go sideways quickly. I believe that the priest might have misjudged how fast he could cross the intersection (in much the same fashion as do squirrels and chipmunks) and surprised the driver who may have done a panic stop but could not do so in time to avoid collision.

John Riley First, I probably agree with you about red lights. Especially since you often seem to be talking about multilane streets.

“Right of way” is not silly, it is the cornerstone of the law.

“The rider might indeed be in the clear in one moment and then a driver rounds the bend (or whatever) and suddenly spots that slow moving cyclist in his headlights and suddenly there is a fatal accident.”

At a stop sign, this can happen regardless of whether or not the cyclist put their foot down before proceeding.

John Riley BTW the only new thing in the article for me was the diagram of the very strange intersection. I suspect this is difficult to navigate under any circumstances.

Eric Vann “Right of Way” is indeed the cornerstone which is why arguments that attempt to try and make the claim that non-observance of traffic controls can somehow be justified make no sense. The moment you occupy an intersection without legal permission you have in essence violated the “right of way” for those approaching that intersection whether you realized they were coming or not. Splitting hairs over whether you can do this and still be either ethical (Randy Cohen’s premise) or have no potential impact (your premise) is silly. Laws establish “right of way”. Taking an intersection unlawfully makes you subject to a ticket and one for that fundamental reason.


“Bicycles Also” signs like this should not really be necessary, for a lot of reasons.

“Bicycles Also” signs like this should not really be necessary, for a lot of reasons.

For the life of me I can never reconcile the almost draconian measures cyclist suggest for curbing the bad behavior of motorists while excusing their own with a dismissive wave of the hand. And if pressed there will always be the notion that their scofflaw behavior is without consequence to others. This is of course not borne out by the facts. Cyclists have been known to kill pedestrians and do so on bikes which were not equipped with brakes

The thing that John is arguing however that you can enter an intersection and do so without “harming” anything. I answer that neither activity “executing an illegal Idaho Stop” or “ignoring a trail alert” is without consequence or potential harm. The fact that we are even having this conversation is what I find silly.

When I illegally enter an intersection I have violated the “right of way” of others. I essence I have created the potential to cause them harm. A driver or another cyclist might have to swerve to avoid me and in the process lose control of their vehicle and injure themselves or someone else. And of course they are likely to hit me. Randy Cohen tries to make the case that this last instance is really on me and on no one else. Wrong!

The moment I violate the intersection and create the situation where either I or someone else is harmed I involve others who themselves might sustain injury. For instance should I be hurt and require emergency medical assistance the police and the fire department show up to give aid. On the way over either of these two responders could be killed coming to my aid. And even if they are alive and well after the ordeal there is still the fact that should I die there is one fatality that goes into the books that year which counts against the safety records of cyclists.

Nothing about scofflaw behavior is to my mind debatable or excusable. If as John puts it “Right of Way is the cornerstone of the law” how could there ever be a justification for ever violating it?

We need to drop this constant bickering over whether we can steal a cookie and not be guilty of this act unless someone sees us. That is what I mean by silly. Stealing a cookie is theft. This is not something that is theory it is fact. Cyclists who like to argue that you can be ethical while breaking the law are like theologians who argue that “God can do anything including creating a rock too heavy for him to lift!

Leave the pedantic nonsense for bar conversation when everyone is so blotto that nothing really matters. But putting that sort of nonsense in print is frankly offensive and more to the point dangerous.