Q: In Idaho, cyclists are allowed to treat stop signs like yield signs, and stop lights like stop signs. I thought this sounded like a bad idea until I read more about it and watched an explanatory video. This law does not give bicyclists the right to 'blow through' intersections, and they still must yield to cars and pedestrians. But it does allow them to use discretion at intersections where there is no impediment to proceeding without coming to a complete stop. The law reflects how most of us actually ride. I think it would improve cycling's image if so many of us were not observed breaking the law at many intersections.
— Jack Helffrich, president, Lehigh Wheelmen Association, Allentown
A: I'll jump on the tandem with you, Jack — not to ride all the way to Idaho, but to endorse the adoption of this sensible regulation in our fair state. As you point out, rolling stops would not be allowed at all times, but only under the conditions specified.
Even with my limited experience with road biking, I can attest that it is simply unrealistic for bicyclists to come to a dead stop at every stop sign, or even at every single stop light. I cited this example a few years ago: You're biking on a paved, rural road, coming down a slight grade, approaching a four-way stop intersection. Flat land all around affords unlimited visibility in all directions; there's neither car nor pedestrian in sight, and no sound but chirping birds. You're doing a brisk (for me, anyway) 15 mph, pedaling easily along in a high gear.
Folks, it would make no sense to stop at that stop sign, having to downshift on the approach, only to start up again, working through the gears, to get back up to a reasonable speed. Bicycles are notably different from cars in that respect, and the general rule of equating the two in the law should not apply in this case.
There are many stop signs and red lights at which stopping a bike is absolutely necessary, for the safety of cyclists, as well as the convenience and travel efficiency of motorists. It is blatantly rude, wasteful and illegal for a cyclist, burning nothing but breakfast, to force a fossil-fuel-guzzling, pollution-spewing 2-ton hunk of machinery to halt needlessly. Even under specified conditions in town — Liberty Street in Allentown, for instance, lightly traveled on a weekday mid-morning in the gorgeous Muhlenberg College area — a cyclist can safely and reasonably slow down and drift through some of the four-way stops.
Most motorists don't come to a complete stop at every stop sign, even though a far better case can be made for following that mandate. Compared with cars, the slow speed of bicycling affords a significantly longer view of conditions, in both time and distance.
Unfortunately, Jack, the traffic- and pedestrian-safety experts I consulted about this proposal do not agree with us, or at least, their initial reactions were skeptical at best.
"I think in general, laws that create different regulations [for bikes versus cars] create different expectations between cyclists and motorists," said Scott Slingerland, bike director for advocacy group Coalition for Appropriate Transportation. "My first thought is, It would create confusion … motorists would think, Why should cyclists have this privilege?," he said.
In addition, lifting the ban on rolling stops might help prompt a general disregard for stop signs, Slingerland said. "For myself, if I really stop, and put my foot down, it gives me a good additional chance to check things out, not be casual about it, see what's coming in both directions," he said. "In my opinion, it's a pretty minor inconvenience just to have to stop."
PennDOT safety expert Steve Pohowsky basically agrees with Slingerland.
"At first blush the concepts [of rolling stops] appear sound," Pohowsky wrote in an email, admitting that he sometimes uses rolling stops, stopping fully "only on busy streets, unfamiliar roads, or blind intersections."
Then he pedaled to the "however" stuff. A member of the state Pedalcycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee, Pohowsky continued, I get the impression … that the bicycling community fought long and hard to get bicycles defined as vehicles subject to all the rights and duties [of motorists]. I'm not sure our commonwealth could allow them to have it both ways. … In the end, the old adage 'Give them an inch and they'll take a mile' may come into play, Pohowsky concluded. "If every bicyclist … was properly trained, and practiced courteous behavior, then maybe something like this would work. But … a percentage of cyclists would believe they don't have to stop at all."
Slingerland and Pohowsky share the "slippery slope" fear, which I think is overblown. Opponents of right-on-red thought the provision would degrade our general sense of respect for red lights, and maybe it did, to some degree. But few people today want to abolish right-on-red.
The few riders who blow through stop signs heedlessly will continue, even in violation of the law. They're clueless, and should be cited. Those who practice rolling stops with due caution, yielding to motor and pedestrian traffic as dictated by plain common sense, would no longer be lawbreakers, so to speak.
Idaho Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator Ted Vanegas said he knew of no major accidents directly attributed to the rolling stops provision, "but it's hard to break that out" from the stats, he said. Passed in 1982, the law continues to generate at least some controversy, and occasionally possible repeal is discussed, Vanegas said. But the provision enjoys strong support from the state's large and politically active biking community, he said.
No other state has yet adopted a similar law, according to Vanegas. Oregon considered doing so a few years ago, but the proposal failed to gain enough traction in the Legislature, said BikePortland's Jonathan Maus, who supports rolling stops.
But let's not wait for Oregon or anyone else to get it in gear. In the view over my handlebars, Idaho-style rolling-stop legislation is fit for approval in Pennsylvania and everywhere. Check out the convincing Idaho rolling-stops animation, available all over the Internet.
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