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Should It Be Legal for Cyclists to Roll Through Stop Signs?

By Richard Dahl on April 21, 2022 4:06 PM

True or false: It is always safer for bicyclists to stop at stop signs and red lights.

Seems like a no-brainer, right?

But guess what. If you answered "true," you're probably wrong.

Evidence shows that it is actually more dangerous for bicyclists if they obey stop signs and red lights like cars do. According to researchers, it is generally safer for bicyclists to treat stop signs as though they are yield signs and red lights as though they are stop signs.

State legislatures are catching on, and on April 13, Colorado became the ninth state to enact a law allowing bicyclists to roll through stop signs if the coast is clear. The Colorado law also allows bicyclists to treat red lights as stop signs, meaning they may proceed through an intersection after stopping if there's no traffic. Colorado is the fourth of these nine states to include a "proceed on red" provision.

If you are shaking your head, that's an understandable reaction. At first glance, it doesn't make sense that giving bicyclists greater authority to roll through intersections is safer for them.

But let's take a closer look.

The most dangerous areas for bicyclists are intersections with motor-vehicle traffic. It's safer if cyclists can simply yield and proceed through an intersection if they see a clear opening. If they miss that opportunity, they may be at greater risk when traffic returns.

Studies Say Yes

Studies in London conclude that obeying traffic laws can have deadly consequences for bicyclists. Researchers found that female cyclists died from collisions with large trucks much more frequently than male cyclists. The conclusion: Women may be at greater risk because they may be more law-abiding, staying put until the light changes.

In the U.S., the laws that allow bicyclists to roll through stop signs or red lights are called "Idaho Stop" laws, named after the state that first allowed it. Idaho took that step in 1982, but it wasn't until 2017 that Delaware became the second.

The long gap can probably be explained by the likelihood that not many people paid much attention to the Idaho law until after 2010, when University of California researcher Jason Meggs wrote a 15-page paper about it. Meggs found that bicycle crashes decreased by 14.5% the first year after the law was adopted. He also found that bicycle injury rates in Boise were 30-60% lower than those in two comparable California cities, Sacramento and Bakersfield.

Other research followed. One paper, which touted Idaho Stop among other safety proposals for bicyclists and pedestrians, attracted particular attention when it was delivered at an international conference in 2014.

Now that more states are passing these laws, law enforcement is finding that fewer bicyclists are being injured. In Delaware, the state police report that intersection crashes in the 30-month period following adoption of the Delaware Yield law fell by 23% from the 30-month period prior to the law, and that overall bike crashes declined by 8%.

Some Don't Buy It

There's no love lost between a certain segment of motorists and bicyclists, so any talk of giving bike riders greater freedom to ignore traffic signs and lights is sure to be a tough sell. Last year, California Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed a bill that passed the state senate and assembly by wide margins, saying, "The approach … may be especially concerning for children, who may not know how to judge vehicle speeds or exercise the necessary caution to yield to traffic when appropriate."

To a significant degree, these laws essentially codify what bicyclists are already doing. Most bicyclists don't stop at stop signs when there's no crossing traffic. Police will still issue tickets to riders who fail to yield properly or who run red lights.

But these laws may have an impact on both criminal and personal injury accident cases that go to trial. Cases may be more fact-specific, focusing more on who was acting safely and who wasn't. There may be more accident-reconstruction experts in court.

There could be more confusion about what constitutes a proper yield, a proper stop, and who is at fault when accidents occur — and critics say confusion is a reason to oppose them.

"We believe that bicycles on the roads should follow the same traffic safety laws as motor vehicles; one road, one rule," said John Moreno, American Automobile Association spokesman. "There's a reason there's a stop sign there. Planners put it there because of traffic safety reasons."

That certainly makes sense. But so does keeping bicycles separate from motor-vehicle traffic.

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