Why cyclists should be able to roll through stop signs and ride through red lights

Updated by Joseph Stromberg on May 9, 2014, 9:40 a.m. ET

Source: Vox

This man doesn't need to stop. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

This man doesn’t need to stop.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

If you’ve looked around a city lately, you might’ve noticed that many cyclists don’t obey many traffic laws. They roll through stop signs, instead of coming to a complete stop, and brazenly ride through red lights if there aren’t any cars coming.

research and common sense say slowly rolling through a stop sign on a bike shouldn’t be illegal

Cyclists reading this might be nodding guiltily in recognition of their own behavior. Drivers might be angrily remembering the last biker they saw flout the law, wondering when traffic police will finally crack down and assign some tickets.

But the cyclists are probably in the right here. 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.

Some places in the US already allow cyclists to treat stop signs as yields, and red lights as stop signs, and these rules are no more dangerous — and perhaps even a little safer — than the status quo.

This is called the “Idaho stop”

There are already a few places in the US that allow cyclists some flexibility in dealing with stop signs and red lights. Idaho has permitted it since 1982, which is why this behavior is known as the Idaho stop.

Idaho’s rule is pretty straightforward: for bikers, a stop sign is a yield

Idaho’s rule is pretty straightforward. If a cyclist approaches a stop sign, he or she needs to slow down and look for traffic. If there’s already a pedestrian, car, or another bike there, then the other vehicle has the right of way. If there’s no traffic, however, the cyclist can slowly proceed. Basically, for bikers, a stop sign is a yield sign.

If a cyclist approaches a red light, meanwhile, he or she needs to stop fully. Again, if there’s any oncoming traffic or a pedestrian, it has the right of way. If there’s not, the cyclist can proceed cautiously through the intersection. Put simply, red light is a stop sign.

This doesn’t mean that a cyclist is allowed to blast through an intersection at full speed — which is dangerous for pedestrians, the cyclist, and pretty much everyone involved. This isn’t allowed in Idaho, and it’s a terrible idea everywhere.

This video, produced when Oregon was considering a similar law in 2009, has some nice visualizations of the Idaho stop at around one minute in:

Apart from Idaho, this is the law in a few Colorado cities (Dillon, Breckenridge, and Aspen), along with Paris and a few other cities in France.

Several states have similar “Dead Red” laws, which lets cyclists (and motorcyclists) ride through a red light if there’s no traffic, if the cyclists have stopped for set periods of time, and if the light isn’t changing because its sensor doesn’t register bikes.

Proposals to allow the Idaho stop have been proposed in a few other states, but they haven’t been approved.


Why so many cyclists do this illegally already

So many cyclists do these things on their own — without even knowing they’re enshrined in law anywhere — because they make sense, in terms of the energy expended by a cyclist as he or she rides.

Unlike a car, getting a bike started from a standstill requires a lot of energy from the rider. Once it’s going, the bike’s own momentum carries it forward, so it requires much less energy.

Getting a bike started from a standstill requires a lot of energy

In 2001, physics professor Joel Fajans conducted tests on California Street in Berkeley — an official bike route with tons of stop signs — and found he was able to maintain an average speed of 10.9 miles per hour without breaking a sweat. On a parallel street without stop signs, he could cruise about 30 percent faster — 14.2 miles per hour — with the same amount of energy.

He also calculated that a cyclist who rolls through a stop at five miles per hour instead of stopping fully needs to use 25 percent less energy to get back to full speed.

This explains why many cyclists roll through stop signs so often. Of course, the simple fact that people often do something that’s against the law doesn’t mean the law should be changed — but here are a few reasons why it really should:

The Idaho stop isn’t more dangerous — and might even be safer

Bicycle Commuting Rose By 26 Percent Last Year In New York City Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Bicycle Commuting Rose By 26 Percent Last Year In New York City
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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.

There are even a few reasons why the Idaho stop might even make the roads saferthan the status quo. In many cities, the low-traffic routes that are safer for bikes are the kinds of roads with many stop signs. Currently, some cyclists avoid these routes and take faster, higher-traffic streets. If the Idaho stop were legalized, it’d get cyclists off these faster streets and funnel the bikes on to safer, slower roads.

The idaho stop could funnel bikes on to safer, slower roads

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.

If all this sounds far-fetched to you, look at the data. Public health researcherJason Meggs found that after Idaho started allowing bikers to do this in 1982, injuries resulting from bicycle accidents dropped. When he compared recent census data from Boise to Bakersfield and Sacramento, California — relatively similar-sized cities with comparable percentages of bikers, topographies, precipitation patterns, and street layouts — he found that Sacramento had 30.5 percent more accidents per bike commuter and Bakersfield had 150 percent more.

Stop signs and traffic lights weren’t designed for cyclists

Stop road sign on Anna Maria Island, Florida, United States of America

Stop road sign on Anna Maria Island, Florida, United States of America Tim Graham/Getty Images

Cars are 2,000 pound-plus machines that, on most roads, travel at 30 miles per hour or faster. In most cases, a driver can’t safely decelerate from this speed to yield to oncoming traffic at an intersection without coming to a full stop first.

Because of the dangers posed by cars, stop signs and traffic lights were invented in the early 20th century to bring order to roads increasingly filled with them. Nowadays, stops signs are often used not only to make intersections safe, but to slow down traffic in residential areas.

Stop signs were invented in the early 20th century to bring order to car-filled roads

Bikes are different — they don’t go fast enough to merit this sort of traffic calming, and don’t have a problem just slowing down for an four-way stop, only stopping if a car’s coming. Oftentimes, they don’t trigger traffic lights to change, because many run on inductive sensors buried in the road (the reason for all the “Dead Red” laws in the map above).

Some cyclists oppose the Idaho stop because of an idea they believe is central to gaining respect for cycling and encouraging good relations with drivers: “same road, same rules.” Because both bikes and cars are wheeled vehicles that use roads, the principle goes, they should always abide by all of the same rules.

This sounds great, in theory, but it doesn’t describe the reality of current traffic laws. Most interstate highways don’t allow bicycles, for instance. Many cities have bike lanes that cars can’t enter. They’re clearly two different sorts of vehicles, and we have rules that apply to one but not the other.

Consider another group of road users that stop signs weren’t designed for:pedestrians. Like bikes, pedestrians don’t need to come to a complete stop to avoid accidents at intersections, which is why you don’t see them weirdly freezing in place when they arrive at one. In most areas, skateboarders, Segway riders, inline skaters, and people in electric wheelchairs aren’t required to stop at stop signs either.

Ultimately, a cyclist occupies a space somewhere in between a pedestrian and a car (faster and more dangerous to others than the former, but smaller and slower than the latter), so the laws that apply to bikes should be somewhere in between — exactly like the Idaho stop.

Laws that serve no purpose (and aren’t followed) shouldn’t exist

This is a principle that’s frequently brought up in support of marijuana legalization, and it’s relevant here as well.

Given that this behavior is common among cyclists, the current laws mainlycriminalize something strongly associated with cycling. This might even enflame drivers’ resentment of bikers more than if by rolling through stop signs, they weren’t breaking the law. The laws also divert police from cutting down on actual unsafe biking behavior — like the jerks who fly through intersections at full speed when they don’t have the right of way.

We even have precedent for a logical, forward-thinking regional movement to ease restrictive traffic laws going nationwide. In 1947, California became the first state to allow drivers to make a right turn on red. During the 1970s, when gasoline prices skyrocketed, dozens of states adopted similar laws, largely because of Federal Highway Administration findings that it saved a lot of gas.

In an era when lots of towns and cities are actively trying to get more people biking — to reduce traffic, if not carbon emissions — you’d think they’d want to remove any hurdles to biking that don’t need to be in place.

So let’s do it. Let’s follow Idaho.

Correction: This piece previously stated that most lights run on weight and magnetic sensors, not inductive sensors.

Background Reading


On-SarcasmPerhaps the Cycling Movement has been a lie from its inception. Perhaps like in solidarity with Cliven Bundy we are “coming out of our closet” to reveal with others our contempt for the rule of law.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all make up our own laws? Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy has been doing that for 20 years, running his cattle on federal lands and refusing to pay the grazing fees that thousands of other ranchers do because he refuses to recognize the federal government’s ownership.

In fact, he says, he doesn’t “recognize the United States government as even existing.” He argues that his family was on the land before the government was so he shouldn’t have to pay, despite numerous court rulings saying he must.

Chicago's Cycling Movement Issues A Leftist Manifesto

Chicago’s Cycling Movement Issues A Leftist Manifesto

As with so many things in cycling we have been lying. We never really intended to “Share The Road“. Instead we intend to remove from the road any and all obstacles to our forward progress (literally) and that of course means shoving cars into open holes in the ground. That means making certain that anything that runs on gasoline as fuel (and especially bicycles) is never allowed to share our God-Given lane.

It has been there all this while, this lie. But every now and then an ethicist for the New York Times gets canned for saying it openly. We do not recognize either the US government or its municipal underlings throughout the various states and towns they contain. We are going to do what we want, when we desire to and that is just fine.

There is nothing short of our personal convenience and satisfaction that matters anyway.

What I Ask In Return

Now that I have knelt before the throne of greed and selfishness in cycling there is one last thing I request before allow Seal of the Anti-Christ to be branded into my flesh. I want all vehicles of every sort to have the same rights as we do.

Why should anyone stop at a red light or a stop sign? It is patently inconvenient and like us every citizen of this country should have the right to tell the government to leave us alone. We are a sovereign people unto ourselves. We do not need any stinking traffic controls. We are above all of that.

Now Let’s Go Out And Mix It Up With The Traffic

What? You are not interested in extending this courtesy to the rest of the nation? Why? And please don’t give me some lame excuse about the weight of vehicles. In Europe they are testing this sort of thing out (seriously, I am not kidding) and its seems to work. So now is the time for all those racer wannabe club-level riders to put up or shut up.

Let’s also drop the notion of a protected class (i.e. vulnerable users). Everyone has to buy his own vehicle insurance and pay what the market will bear. Let’s just collectively put our heads down and pedal through intersections and see what happens.

Whee! It is great to be a free person!