Stops should be Yields for Cyclists

NOTE: this page is not being maintained, but the issue is more alive than ever. As of Nov. 2009, efforts to adopt some version of the Idaho Law have been attempted in Oregon, Arizona, California, and Virgina, and likely more places. Given that all research indicates that the public is safer and much better off with the Idaho Law, it's only a matter of time until the current system, which is harmful, is changed for the better. News about this is traveling to many places, for example:

This article and this radio show on KBOO in Portland.

Bicycles, Rolling Stops, and the Idaho Stop from Spencer Boomhower on Vimeo.

The below is somewhat incomplete and out of date:

Stop signs should be yield signs for bicycles. This is already the case in some places, such as Idaho, and was historically the case for much of the bicycle's existence, and is in the legislature in Oregon as of October 2003 (HB 2768-A, Prozanski). Why not California? In fact there is an argument that it already is legal, but enforced incorrectly (see below). The SF Green Party recently recommended same (see F.7 at ("Instruct San Francisco police to deprioritize bicycle violations at stop signs and red lights where bicyclists yield the right-of-way, and urge the California legislature to amend the Vehicle Code to adopt the Idaho vehicle code's unique treatment of bicycle behavior at intersections: yield at STOP signs and STOP (then proceed) at red lights.")

Reasons why cyclists should be given the option to yield:

There's no question that motorists *must* stop. The way many run stop signs today is very dangerous, blasting right through, or swinging around corners for those lightning fast right turns without sufficiently looking, e.g. rush-hour violators who sometimes don't even slow for stop signs when crossing bike routes. Cars are very deadly, and cause tremendous public expense. Bicycles are relatively non-hazardous, provide tremendous public health benefits, yet are discouraged by motor vehicles--they should be given every encouragement possible.

Some argue that changing the law will result in "chaos" and lead to careless treatment of stop signs. This is not true. It wasn't true in Idaho, and it wouldn't be true in California. Again, such a change in law does not take right of way from motorists. Bicyclists have a very strong physical incentive not to take that right of way. There should be no appreciable difference in behavior on the road, yet for zero cost, the state would have vastly improved the situation for bicycling in California. The major cause of danger to cyclists is motorists. Reportedly, 95% of bicycle fatalities involve a motor vehicle. In the Netherlands, a law was recently passed that a motorist who hits a bicycle or pedestrian is assumed to be at-fault, unless it can be demonstrated that the victim was trying to be hit. In that country, cyclists are 1/13th as likely to be killed by motorcar.

Here's some feedback we've received: "Traffic control devices are installed at great public expense for one reason only: cars kill. Every time a bicyclist or pedestrian is made to stop, they are being forced to cater yet again to the motorist's tremendous impact on society." "Accepting unjust laws only perpetuates them. The reason we have all those traffic lights and stop signs is not to increase safety. They were instituted specifically to increase the flow of automobile traffic. If you are not well versed on this subject, check out books like "Down the Asphalt Path : The Automobile and the American City" by Clay McShane which is a great transportation history book. The problem is that traffic flow has been facilitated so much that it is now destroying our communities, our environment, and tens of thousands of people every year. Accepting this system will only perpetuate the problems. Our job isn't to be good little campers and hope that the powers that be will fix the problems. The only way things change is by fighting the system and sometimes that means not accepting the laws." -- Mike Smith, "Most stop signs are not for safety. The purpose is to discourage and/or slow down cars in neighborhood/residial streets. The goal is actually made worse by forcing stopping for bicyclists: it discourages bicycling and encourages car use because of increased time and energy it takes for bicyclists. It's easier for potential bike riders to step on the gas pedal (cough cough) than to pump the bicycle pedals after stopping. "In fact, almost all 4-way stops are in this category. There rarely is a visiblity problem, which is the only other reason for a 4-way stop."
Idaho has a more enlightened law on the books, which does allow for yields rather than stops at stop signs. California, it can be argued, also allows an interpretation in this vein. In addition, there appears to be nothing to prevent local jurisdictions from qualifying their stop signs by local ordinance or resolution, or by placing a "Bicyclists Yield" sign below them. > The definition of stop in the California Vehicle Code is: > > 587. "Stop or stopping" when prohibited shall mean any cessation of > movement of a vehicle, whether occupied or not, except when > necessary to avoid conflict with other traffic or in compliance with > the direction of a police officer or official traffic control device > or signal. [NOTE: this definition does not specifically apply to stopping where required, only "when prohibited" (e.g., no stopping zones) although because "stop" appears to not be defined anyplace else in California law as of Oct. 26, 2003, a court might very well use this definition.] > At critical mass, if you stop, you are at risk for being hit from behind > because no one expects you to stop. I've even been hit from behind by a > police officer who then ordered me to "never do that -- never stop in > traffic"!!!! Therefore it is "necessary to avoid conflict with other > traffic" to go through a stop sign when hundreds or thousands of others > are doing so. Furthermore, this has been the de facto arrangement with > police for years, and we've been doing this consistently every month. No > police officer issued any warning on that day not to do what we always do, > at least not to me -- and I tend to be very interested in statements by > the police. Therefore I could even say that not stopping was part of an > ongoing undestanding, and as such, that I was acting in "compliance with > the direction of a police officer" (and in the case when I was struck by > one, I actually was ordered). > > Similarly, in everyday life, to stop you run the risk of being rear > ended (and this does happen with some frequency). Most conflicts > occur at intersections. Red lights in particular are dangerous for > those who stop, because they can be hit by turning vehicles. Countries > that are more bicycle-friendly put a special zone for bikes ahead > of cars, to allow them an initial chance to turn left and head > through the intersection. In the USA the best we can do is travel > through during a lull in cross traffic, before the dangerous oncoming/ > turning traffic commences. Here's the law from Idaho: MOTOR VEHICLES CHAPTER 7 PEDESTRIANS AND BICYCLES 49-720. STOPPING -- TURN AND STOP SIGNALS. (1) A person operating a bicycle or human-powered vehicle approaching a stop sign shall slow down and, if required for safety, stop before entering the intersection. After slowing to a reasonable speed or stopping, the person shall yield the right-of-way to any vehicle in the intersection or approaching on another highway so closely as to constitute an immediate hazard during the time the person is moving across or within the intersection or junction of highways, except that a person after slowing to a reasonable speed and yielding the right-of-way if required, may cautiously make a turn or proceed through the intersection without stopping. (2) A person operating a bicycle or human-powered vehicle approaching a steady red traffic-control signal shall stop before entering the intersection, except that a person after slowing to a reasonable speed and yielding the right-of-way if required, may cautiously make a right-hand turn without stopping or may cautiously make a left-hand turn onto a one-way highway without stopping. (3) A person riding a bicycle shall comply with the provisions of section 49-643, Idaho Code. (4) A signal of intention to turn right or left shall be given during not less than the last one hundred (100) feet traveled by the bicycle before turning, provided that a signal by hand and arm need not be given if the hand is needed in the control or operation of the bicycle. The Idaho Code is the property of the state of Idaho, and is copyrighted by Idaho law, I.C. =A7 9-350. According to Idaho law, any person who reproduces or distributes the Idaho Code for commercial purposes in violation of the provisions of this statute shall be deemed to be an infringer of the state of Idaho's copyright.
Here's some information from Chris Morfas, Executive Director of the California Bicycle Coalition:
"WHY BICYCLISTS HATE STOP SIGNS" From an article in the current issue of "Access," by Univ. of California/Berkeley physics professor Joel Fajans and Access managing editor Melanie Currie. Both commute by bicycle. "...On a street with a stop sign every 300 feet, calculations predict that the average speed of a 150-pound rider putting out 100 watts of power will diminish by about forty percent. If the bicyclist wants to maintain her average speed of 12.5 mph while still coming to a complete stop at each sign, she has to increase her output power to almost 500 watts. This is well beyond the ability of all but the most fit cyclists..." "Access" is a journal of the University of California Transportation Center at U.C. Berkeley. More info at: (From CenterLines, the e-newsletter of the National Center for Bicycling & Walking) ----------- An aside on bike-ped relations: Many of the "near-misses" that ped's complain about stem from their not being aware of nearby bicyclists (It's not the ped's fault; it's just in the different natures of walking and bicycling. The walker can afford to daydream a little, whereas the cyclist must constantly scan the field ahead and prepare his next moves). The bicyclist-- sometimes behaving legally, sometimes not-- has usually seen the pedestrian and determined the path he must take to avoid the walking citizen many seconds before the ped notices the bicyclist. Thus, the ped is surprised by a cyclist who had the encounter all figured out 50 feet before the "near-miss." Chris Morfas

Here's an interesting article entitled, "The Law Is A Ass: Or, One Law for the Lion and The Lamb is Tyranny, by Charlie McCorkell

Quotable quotes

  • "Complaining about cyclists going thru red lights is like complaining about queue-jumping in a bank where there's an armed robbery going on" - Bob Davis.

  • "When cars obey the following laws of nature:
    • (1) Not to tear apart the earth (strip mining);
    • (2) Not to pollute the earth;
    • (3) Not to destroy the homes of wild creatures (freeways/thruways/expressways);
    • (4) Not to smother the land in a dead crust;
    Then, and only then, shall I consider following the "laws" for bicycles, which are ill-conceived and generally derived to keep automobiles from killing people, not to regulate bicycle traffic appropriately."

  • "When cars have a stop sign every 200 feet on the freeway, then I'll stop at stop signs. It makes as much sense."

  • "It's more likely to be rear-ended by a motorist expecting you not to stop than to be t-boned by a motorist not expecting you to run the sign."

  • "Stopping at intersections makes me breathe more pollution. I will disobey all signs to avoid that harm."

  • "If they can't make it legal in my city, they can damn well pass a resolution making it the lowest-priority traffic enforcement issue."

  • "As a bicyclist identified for bike advocacy, I decided I'd better set a good example and signal and stop at all stop signs and lights. I was rear-ended three times in as many months, and had to fight with police to get them to realize that my being hit from behind at a stop was not my fault."

  • "Riding a bike is a skill, a true art form, and no live-by-the-book, ride-by-the-numbers strategy will ever encompass what a cyclist needs to know to survive, let alone to flourish. No wonder they call us 'Anarchists'. Rules fail, life experience prevails. But more importantly than petty political name calling, most serious accidents occur in the first three months of riding, before life experience in the art of manoevering through traffic is gained. People who have run stops all their lives say it's safer. What we need is an educational program teaching bicycling skills in the schools, starting with kindergarten, not more police crackdowns. Save that tactic for those who risk lives: reckless motorists! There are plenty of them out there."

  • "Hey, I ride to survive, and I respect the "laws of traffic", and not the "traffic" laws to do so. Cyclists deserve better PERIOD! The traffic laws are designed for cars, and not for equal or safe access. If it's not this "law-abiding" excuse, then it will be some other reason to disenfranchise cyclists. I see cars break laws every day, and no excuses are brought up against holding back yet another 200 billion dollars in sprawl-inducing, pollution-generating superhighway funds every year. Critical Mass: have fun and push back!"

  • "At Critical Mass and other big group rides, bicycles should be considered one cohesive unit, like a train--and be allowed to stick together through red lights and stop signs once the "head" has passed through. Just as a beehive is considered a "superorganism", so should a Critical Mass or bike parade be considered a "supervehicle. Such a procession can be made legal at the local level under the California Vehicle Code".

  • A reply to the above "superorganism" allusion: If a truck pulling several trailers comes to a stop sign, the "organism" stops once. What if we were all to hang onto the same rope? We'd be the same as one vehicle.

  • An argument between a "vehicular cyclist" and a stops-as-yields cyclist:
    • VC:
      Why would it be good for cyclists to be treated 
      differently from any other vehicular roadway user?
      "Same roads - Same rules - Same rights" still applies.

    • SAYC:
      Because we are different from the other users of the road!  Ships follow 
      a set of rules based on the size of their vessel - what is an appropriate 
      maneuver for a suburban is not necessarily appropriate for a bicycle and 
      vice-versa.  Would you lane split through gridlock? A car can't.  I don't 
      care to be treated equal to an auto. The fact is, I'm not an auto!

  • "When are these traffice engineers going to stop looking at "Level of Service" (maximizing how many cars can move as fast as possible) or at least redefine it to include bicycles? They've scared people off the arterials and because people hate cars on their streets, there are stop signs everywhere. At the very least there should be special bicycle routes with no stop signs, paths should always make the cars stop and have a table intersection so bikes can move smoothly across, and cars should be discouraged with barriers and other traffic calming devices. Until that day I'm running all stop signs I feel I need to, because this traffic system obviously has nothing to do with me."

  • [In response to the suggestion that bicyclists, a minority, want something "better than the majority" and that that is unprecedented in social justice struggles]: "here's my rationale: when I want to ride my bicycle from San Francisco to Redwood City, I have to go through about 30 stop signs on the way. If I drive, I have to go through about three. Why? Because in a car, I can take Highway 101 or 280. On a bicycle, I have to take surface streets. I've timed it: in my car, obeying the law, following the route I take on my bicycle, it takes me nearly two hours to get from San Francisco to Redwood City! So don't talk to me about wanting BETTER treatment. Give me a 24-foot-wide limited-access highway that I can realistically use on my bicycle, with entrances and exits instead of controlled intersections, running the length of the Peninsula from San Jose to San Francisco (since other people have different needs), and I'll consider your theory that I should stop at every stop sign between San Francisco and Redwood City if I choose to ride on the surface streets instead. " --Ted Lemon,

  • And for a REALLY REMARKABLE discussion of this and related issues, don't miss the MOTHER OF ALL FLAME WARS!!!!

    Back to the Bicycle Civil Liberties Union.

    Back to the Bike the Bridge! Coalition.

    Return to