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Bicycle & Skate Law


ARE WE READY FOR AN IDAHO STYLE BICYCLE YIELD LAW?

By Ray Thomas, Oregon Bike and Pedestrian Lawyer

Would Oregon benefit from a law, similar to the one in Idaho, allowing bicyclists to slow down, yield to traffic and then travel through stop signs without coming to a complete stop or to stop, yield and then travel (when safe) through red lights? Many if not most cyclists tend to behave this way at stop signs already and some, though fewer do the same at red lights. Does it make sense to punish cyclists for slowly and safely riding through a stop sign when no cross traffic or pedestrians are approaching? Would cooperation and good will between cyclists, motorists and law-enforcement improve if these common sense bicycling practices were made legal? To answer these questions, it might help to consider the reasons bicyclists often choose not to stop fully at stop signs or to wait all the way through certain red lights.

Why Don't Bicyclists Want to Stop at Stop Signs or Wait at Red Lights When There Is No Approaching Traffic?

Bicyclists tend to want to roll through stop signs and stop lights when there is no approaching traffic because it requires considerable energy to stop completely and get back up to speed. In addition, bicyclists instinctively recognize they will be safer if they can minimize time spent in intersections. The Idaho experience has demonstrated bicyclists do not mistakenly fail to stay out of the way of approaching motorists at stop signs or red lights just because the law allows them to stop and/or yield and roll. While the data is not entirely clear, at least one European study has demonstrated that removing stop and yield signs tends to reduce the number of collisions because operators pay more attention to approaching traffic and engage in cooperative merging and sharing of the roadway (in much the same way pedestrians share sidewalks).

In addition, because the bicycle relies upon the relatively low power output of the human operator, unnecessary slowing or stopping, taking one's foot out of a rat-trap or clipless pedal and partially dismounting to put a foot on the ground, then reversing the process, overcoming inertia, and getting up to speed again all require considerable effort that is unnecessary from the perspective of the rider. A recent study by Joel Fajans and Melanie Curry entitled "Why Bicyclists Hate Stop Signs" (Access Magazine, No. 18, Spring 2001) states:

With only 100 watts' worth (compared to 100,000 watts generated by a 150 horsepower car engine), bicyclists must husband their power. Accelerating from stops is strenuous, particularly since most cyclists feel a compulsion to regain their former speed quickly. They also have to pedal hard to get the bike moving forward fast enough to avoid falling down while rapidly up-shifting to get back up to speed.

For example, 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 40 percent. If the bicyclist wants to maintain her average speed of 12.5 miles per hour, while still coming to a complete stop at each sign, she has to increase her power output to almost 500 watts. This is well beyond the ability of all but the most fit cyclists.

Fajans, a physics professor, notes that "one way cyclists conserve their energy at stop signs is to slow down, but not stop. A cyclist who rolls to a stop at 5 miles per hour needs 25 percent less energy to get back to 10 miles per hour than does a cyclist who comes to a complete stop." These authors (who are also bicycle commuters) conclude:

Traffic planners need to find ways to help bikes and cars coexist safely. A good place to begin is by taking the special concerns of bicyclists seriously, and not assuming that they will be served by a system designed for cars . . . allowing bicyclists to treat stop signs as yield signs . . . could solve the problems . . . .

Would an Idaho-Style Law for Bicyclists Improve the Public Perception of Bicyclists?

Ask motorists what irritates them about bicyclists and the complaint that bicyclists don't follow the same traffic rules as everyone else will be near the top of the list. Bicyclists fail to stop and wait at traffic lights and frequently run stop signs. To many motorists this behavior justifies a punitive attitude on the roadway when bicyclists attempt to take their fair share of a lane or assert their lawful right of way in bicycle lanes.

Would it not be a good idea to make legal the type of riding behavior at stop signs and red lights many bicyclists engage in anyway? We have seen above why bicyclists resist waiting at stop signs or stop lights when there is no cross traffic (or way to change the light) and the intersection is clear. Holding back progress when there is no reason to stop elevates form over substance and needlessly interrupts and delays the human powered journey, as significantly more effort is needed to regain momentum after a complete stop on a bicycle than after slowing down to yield.

It is no coincidence that police choose stop signs for traffic law "stings" (enforcement actions). Their focus is connected with the number of public complaints about bicyclists. What do motorists call about to complain about bicyclists? Running red lights and stop signs. Why? Because everyone knows that these laws apply to bicyclists even though so many people on bikes act like they don't want to follow them.

Within the motorist community there is no corollary anti-stop sign or red light "movement". No motorist organization suggests that stop lights or signs are unnecessary or silly. While some folks don't quite get stopped at stop signs (the estimates vary between 40-70%) no motorist group (except for fleeing felons) actually behaves like they are unnecessary.

Bicyclists on the other hand will often run stop signs if there is no motor vehicle nearby. Response to red lights varies, but most riders endure red lights when it is otherwise safe to go in order to follow the law, not because it makes particular sense to do so.

Of course, the assistance of stop signs and traffic signals is much needed by bicyclists at many intersections in order to keep the cars back. But if every stop sign there replaced by a yield sign there would be little change in the riding behavior of most cyclists. After all, avoiding a collision with a motor vehicle is the main goal for bicyclists in traffic; few collisions with bicyclists ever result from bicyclist confusion about who will yield first, a car or a bike. Survival is too difficult in "rough driving" (a NASCAR term for aggressive driving involving car to car contact) situations for the bicyclist to ever seriously attempt it.

Why Not Change the Stop Sign Laws for Bicyclists?

The question then arises, why not change the law for bicyclists? Some opponents warn that separate laws for bicyclists will create hard feelings and even less respectful treatment from motorists. But would there be a reduction in net hard feelings if the rules were changed for bicyclists? Wouldn't motorists have less to be grumpy about if the laws were different for bicyclists at stop signs and lights?

The Idaho experience demonstrates that youthful riders are not endangered by the change.

If bicyclists were allowed by law to yield and roll at stop signs, it is unlikely that adult riders would increase their careless riding by getting confused and riding into a wreck with a car. Again, the survival instinct holds bicyclists back from crossing busy streets heedlessly. So, if there is no discernible increase in bicycle injuries from a yield and roll law (which is precisely the result in Idaho where the law has been in place since 1982) then will youthful be confused by any change?

Young riders are the least experienced riders on the highway and will sometimes take great risks. Their lack of mental and physical development interferes with safe riding until they become adults. When the Idaho law was first passed in 1982, several legislators raised concerns that kids might be endangered by the new law. An Idaho child education program was created to help teach kids about the new law. Howeve,r when the law was amended in 1988 the legislature removed the education program as unnecessary because young people seemed to have little trouble with the stop sign law.

Would Idaho-style Law Hurt Bicyclists in Court?

What impact would a change in stop sign and traffic-light laws have in the traffic and civil courts? On the traffic side there would still be tickets for bicyclists who fail to yield before rolling through stop signs, or who roll through red lights without stopping. If the law changed "police actions" that produced them, tickets would likely result in fewer disgruntled bicyclists, particularly since the intersections currently chosen by the police for "stings" are ones where bicyclists naturally want to roll through because of the absence of cross traffic and good sight lines.

To many riders it seems like a tremendous waste of law-enforcement resources to set up an enforcement action at stop signs where there is no history of serious injuries to bicyclists caused by failures to come to a complete stop. While some riders are hurt by riding at speed through stop signs or red lights and get hit by cars, these collisions do not result from confusion about whether the rider is supposed to stop or not, but instead by mistakes in judgment, careless riding or impairment.

In the civil courts there are almost no legal disputes about riders running stop signs or lights and getting hit, because when it happens, the fault is so clearly with the cyclist that the case never gets filed, or if filed, is settled long before trial. It is likely that any change in the law would have little impact on the majority of bicycle/motor vehicle collisions that end up in civil court. Most lawsuits relate to motorist failures to yield to bicyclists in bike lanes or during turns, not disputes over stop signs or red lights.

Could a New Law Have Negative Effects?

If changing the law will result in a net improvement in motorist attitudes toward bicyclists and bicyclist compliance with traffic laws, will there be other negatives?

Some members of the bicycle community firmly believe that bicycle riders should follow the same laws as motorists. This riding philosophy has become known as Vehicular Bicycling. Proponents argue that the safest place for bicyclists is in the road with other vehicles and that if bicyclists seek special treatment, the consequence will be bureaucratic relegation to separate and unequal facilities like bicycle paths (off-road, poorly designed and poorly maintained paved paths popular in the 1960s and 1970s). However, development of bicycle-oriented facilities in Europe and the United States, including separated bikeways, bicycle lanes, bicycle boulevards and boxes, and other enhancements, have demonstrated that special treatment of bicyclists induces a substantial number of new riders to attempt bicycling to work, school and for recreation. And there is general agreement in the bicycle advocacy community that the best way to increase safety for bicyclist is to increase the number of riders on the road. As the numbers of bicyclist increases, the rate of injuries has decreased.

While the ideas of Vehicular Bicycling have considerable merit, the last two decades have clearly demonstrated that the way to increase bicycle presence on the roadways is to create facilities that make new riders feel welcome. Separate-facilities development has not been without complications (such as the right-hook syndrome for bicycle lanes). By and large, though, investment in separate facilities in areas of high ridership, such as the Netherlands, Germany and parts of the United States, has clearly demonstrated that a supportive political and facility-development environment has the potential to promote bicycling as a viable transportation option, not relegate bicyclists to an inferior position in the transportation system.

Some opponents of an Idaho-style bicyclist law argue that motorists will harbor resentment against bicyclists accorded "special treatment" at stop signs and stop lights. However, these same motorists will likely be less resentful if the law is changed to legalize a yield-and-roll practice because bicyclists will no longer be viewed as scofflaws disregarding the rules. By legalizing riding behavior already engaged in by many bicyclists, a net reduction in motorist hostility will likely develop. Reducing motorist hostility increases the likelihood of safer treatment by motorists on the roadway and ultimately, improvement in the general attitude toward bicyclists.

History of the Idaho Law

In Idaho bicyclists have been allowed by statute since 1982 to approach stop signs and roll through, after first yielding the right of way. Bicyclists in Idaho are also allowed to turn right at red lights without stopping, so long as the bicyclist first yields to other vehicles. In 2005 the Idaho legislature further changed the law to allow bicyclists to stop, yield to other vehicles and then travel through a red light.

The original Idaho yield law was introduced as HB 541 during a comprehensive revision of Idaho Traffic laws in 1982. The bicycle provision was discussed during committee hearings. Concerns were raised that some children on bicycles might not be as careful at stop signs if stopping were not required. The legislature added a provision amending the bill to provide options for local bicycling education for children and passed the bill.1

In 1988, Idaho undertook a "comprehensive recodification" of the motor vehicle law, according to Kristin Ford, the Idaho Legislative Reference Librarian. Senate Bill1245 renumbered the bicycle provision as Idaho Code 49-7202 and deleted the education provision.3

In 2005, Idaho law enforcement officials asked Representative Joyce Broadsword (R -- Sandpoint) to introduce a law to clarify that bicyclists must stop at a red light before proceeding. They felt clarification was necessary because the 1982 Idaho law had allowed bicyclists at a red light, "after slowing to a reasonable speed" to "cautiously make a right hand turn or a left-hand turn onto a one-way highway" without stopping. Law enforcement requested that as a safety measure, bicyclists be required to first stop at a red light before yielding and rolling straight through, or turning left at an intersection. Senate Bill 1131 was passed and became effective in 2006.

Current Idaho law provides:

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 light shall stop before entering the intersection and shall yield to all other traffic. Once the person has yielded, he may proceed through the steady red light with caution. Provided however, that a person after slowing to a reasonable speed and yielding the right-of-way if required, may cautiously make a right-hand turn. A left-hand turn onto a one-way highway may be made on a red light after stopping and yielding to other traffic.

Thus, at stop signs, the Idaho bicyclist may slow, yield, and roll. At red lights when intending to turn right they can slow, yield and roll, but they must stop, yield, and then roll to make a left turn or to proceed straight through the intersection.

The Idaho Experience

Idaho's experience with its innovative approach has been positive according to Mark McNeese, Bicycle/Pedestrian Coordinator for the Idaho Transportation Department. McNeese says the Idaho law recognizes the reality that most bicyclists fail to come to a complete stop at stop signs. It is fairly easy to yield the right-of-way, if needed, without actually stopping. McNeese argues that collisions occur in stop sign controlled intersections because vehicle operators, including bicyclists, make a mistake deciding when it is safe to go, not due to confusion about whether to stop or yield. He adds that Idaho bicycle-collision statistics confirm that the Idaho law has resulted in no discernable increase in injuries or fatalities to bicyclists. McNeese says that bicyclists, due to their vulnerability, will seldom "push their luck" and refuse to yield to vehicles when necessary. Those who do take such chances would probably do so with or without the yield law.

McNeese reports that the Idaho system has additional benefits. The state does not need to increase the cost of signalized intersections with special sensing equipment because the stop, yield and roll system enables bicyclists to roll when the intersection is clear. In Oregon, under present law, many traffic-control vehicle detection systems fail to pick up the presence of a bicyclist, resulting in a light that is never triggered into a green cycle during low-volume vehicular use. Under the Idaho system, less expensive intersection sensors can be used because equipment need not be so sensitive as to pick up the small amount of metal in many modern bicycle wheels and frames. Idaho has even gone for far as to expand their law in 2006 to allow motorcycles to stop, yield and roll on red lights if the traffic control signal fails to activate a green light (Idaho Code, 49-720).

McNeese also reports that conflicts between neighborhood traffic-calming advocates and bicycle commuters has also been reduced. He says that many neighborhoods alongside arterial roadways attempt to limit traffic cutting through their neighborhoods by requesting installation of stop signs. Since bicycle commuters and youngsters tend to favor these same low traffic-volume side streets, the flow of non-motorized commuter traffic is made smoother because bicyclists can slow, yield and roll at stop signs. He says this cuts down on bicycle commuter time (and effort) while also reducing the flow of motorized traffic on quiet neighborhood side streets.

McNeese says that in 1988, Idaho removed the education requirement from the 1982 law because special training was unnecessary. Youthful riders quickly adapted to the new system and had more respect for a law that legalized actual riding behavior.

 

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Footnote 1)
49-746. STOPPING TURN AND STOP SIGNALS -- EDUCATIONAL PROGRAMS.
(1) A person operating a bicycle or human-powered vehicle approaching a stop sign .shall slow down and, if required ior safety, shall 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 roadway so closely as to constitute an immediate hazard during the time such person is moving across or within the intersection or junction of roadways, 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 circular red traffic control signal shall stop before entering the intersection except that a person after slowing to 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 roadway without stopping.
(3) Except as provided in this section, a person riding a bicycle shall comply with the provisions of section 49-661, 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.
(5) Nothing in this section shall prohibit any governmental entity or private organization from adopting or carrying out any educational program to help make children and adults aware of their highway safety responsibilities in connection with the operation of either bicycles or motor vehicles
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Footnote2)
49-746720. STOPPING -- TURN AND STOP SIGNALS EDUCATIONAL
PROGRAMS. (1) A person operating a bicycle or human-powered vehicle approaching a stop sign shall slow down and, if required for safety,shall 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 roadhighway so closely as to constitute an immediate hazard during the time such~ person is moving across or within the intersection or junction of roadhighways, 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 circular 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 roadhighway without stopping.
(3) Except as provided in this section, A person riding a bicycle shall comply with the provisions of section-49-661643, 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 band is needed in the control or operation of the bicycle.
5) Nothing in this section shall prohibit any governmental entity or private organization from adopting or carrying out any educational program to help make children and adults aware of their highway safety responsibilities in connection with the operation of either bicycles or motor vehicles.
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Footnote 3)
Perhaps because, as will be discussed below, six years of experience with the new practice resulted in no increase in injuries or fatalities for bicyclists.
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