Saying that motorists and bicyclists don’t always get along is not only a massive understatement, but at this point it feels like beating a dead horse. Now, as San Francisco debates the possibility of allowing cyclists to use an “Idaho stop” at stop signs, the two warring factions are once again clashing over what’s best for the city.
The “Idaho stop,” so named because yielding at stop signs rather than coming to a complete stop has been legal for cyclists in Idaho since 1982, is already the standard practice for many cyclists. However, with SFPD occasionally opting for strict enforcement, cyclists choosing to ignore existing regulations have faced the possibility of being ticketed for failing to come to a complete stop. Now, a proposed bill would make citations for bicyclists who safely yield at stop signs the lowest law enforcement priority.
The proposed ordinance is expected to come to a vote in December, and although Mayor Lee has said he’ll veto it, there may be enough supervisors supporting the bill to overcome a veto. If that turns out to be the case, San Francisco will become the largest U.S. city to adopt a stop-as-yield law.
With all that said, the biggest question is, is the “Idaho stop” actually safer for cyclists?
From a functional standpoint, a stop-as-yield makes a lot of sense for cyclists. It allows them to conserve their momentum and clear the intersection faster, reducing the amount of time they’re vulnerable to cross traffic. Allowing cyclists to “proceed without fully stopping at stop signs if the intersection is empty” (as the measure suggests) would not only make things easier for cyclists, it would help eliminate congestion for drivers as well.
As the July protest from bike riders along the Wiggle suggested, following the letter of the law is sometimes better in theory than in practice. Hundreds of cyclists made their point by coming to a complete stop at every stop sign along the route, effectively bringing traffic to a standstill and causing irritated drivers to compound the issue by driving in the wrong lane.
While some irritation at scofflaw cyclists is clearly warranted (let’s not pretend everyone exercises good judgment at all times) a large amount of animosity seems to stem from the mere act of sitting in a vehicle and watching a cyclist whiz by while the motorist is stuck in gridlock. And, although there’s no way to eliminate resentment, the “Idaho stop” does help keep traffic moving more efficiently for everyone.
Of equal importance is the fact that according to San Francisco’s Vision Zero guidelines, the five behaviors most likely to cause traffic collisions all involve cars and drivers. Embracing the stop-as-yield would help re-prioritize enforcement toward the type of violations typically resulting in serious injuries.
As one opinion piece discussing the merits of the “Idaho stop” suggests, confirmation bias often has motorists outraged by cyclists exhibiting the exact same behaviors they commonly display while operating their own vehicle. As the article correctly points out, “The key to bicycles and cars co-existing safely is predictable behavior.”
For that reason, the “Idaho stop” is safe cycling. The proposed policy would allow police to focus their enforcement efforts on the type of behaviors commonly causing accidents, while also still allowing truly irresponsible cyclists to be ticketed for blowing through a busy intersection.