“Idaho Stop” in the Name of Love: DePaul Study Endorses Rational Cycling

It may even be safer than following the letter of the law

Bicyclists treating stoplights like stop signs, and stop signs like yield signs, is a ubiquitous and harmless practice. Photo: John Greenfield
Bicyclists treating stoplights like stop signs, and stop signs like yield signs, is a ubiquitous and harmless practice. Photo: John Greenfield

The Chicago Tribune is such a reliable source of flat-earth rants about biking, that it’s truly a pleasure when they publish some sensible words about cycling. Recently most of the paper’s intelligent coverage of bike issues has come from transportation reporter Mary Wisniewski, who commutes on two wheels herself. An example was this morning’s balanced article about a new DePaul study that calls for relaxing laws requiring bike riders to come to a complete stop at stop signs and always wait for a green before proceeding through a stoplight.

However, I did have to chuckle at the first line of the piece: “This won’t surprise anybody who has driven through a Chicago intersection, but not all cyclists obey stop signs and lights.” As recent local videos prove, most motorists don’t obey stop signs either. Terrifyingly, it’s also pretty common for people piloting high-speed, multi-ton vehicles to blast through red lights.

But I digress. The report released today by DePaul’s Chaddick Institute (and apparently leaked last week to the Tribune) comes to the very logical conclusion that Illinois municipalities should consider changing their traffic laws to reflect the way that most safety-minded people actually ride bikes. That is, it’s the rule, rather than the exception, for cyclists to treat stop signs like yield signs by decelerating and checking to make sure there’s no cross traffic before proceeding through the intersection, rather than putting a foot down.

It’s also entirely normal for people on bikes to treat a stoplight like a stop sign by coming to a halt, looking both ways, and proceeding once the coast is clear. Unlike mindless running of stop signs and stoplights, which nobody on two or four wheels should do (but is obviously much, much more dangerous when done by drivers), the aforementioned momentum- and time-saving practices by cyclists are completely harmless. In recognition of that, the Gem State has legalized this ubiquitous behavior, which is why it’s know as the “Idaho stop.”

The DePaul report, which also looked at the relative travel times for biking, the CTA, and UberPool, based its conclusion after observing 875 bike riders at six intersections on the North Side and in Hyde Park. The researchers found that only one out of 25 cyclists came to a complete stop at stop signs, and two-thirds of riders proceed through stoplights if the intersection is clear. “It’s tough to step up enforcement without aligning the rules with reality,” study co-author Joseph Schwieterman told Wisniewski.

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Image: Chaddick Institute

The study also noted that it can actually be safer for cyclists to proceed through intersections in advance of the green, because it eliminates the possibility of being struck by turning motorists after the light changes. The researchers mentioned a 2007 report from the U.K. that found that female cyclists in London were much more likely to be fatally struck by turning truck drivers than men, apparently because women were more likely to obey traffic signals and get caught in the drivers’ blind spots.

Both cyclists who were killed by right-turning truck drivers at intersections with stoplights this year in Chicago were women, Virginia Murray and Anastasia Kondrasheva. However, security video shows that the light was already green when Murray approached the intersection, and it’s unclear whether Kondrasheva was stopped at a red light before the driver struck her.

Notably, the DePaul researchers don’t call for legalizing the Idaho stop at all intersections with traffic signals, but say it may make sense to limit it to streets with lighter traffic, or late at night when traffic volumes are lower.

One passage that stood out in Wisniewski’s otherwise very solid piece included quotes from bike-focused lawyer Mike Keating (a Streetsblog Chicago sponsor):

Keating said bicyclists also have to remember that they have responsibilities as well as rights, and the recklessness of some creates problems for everyone. He thinks cycling rules and safety should be taught in driver’s ed classes.

“You have to give respect to get respect,” Keating said. “I’m sometimes concerned that cyclists that act as scofflaws aren’t giving the respect, so the ones who do adhere to the rules of the road don’t get that respect in return.”

It wasn’t clear whether Keating was classifying all cyclists who don’t follow the letter of the law, including Chicagoans who do the Idaho stop, as reckless scofflaws who aren’t giving respect and therefore don’t deserve respect.

Keating clarified his position via email:

“I am a longtime supporter of the Idaho stop and think that it makes a lot of sense for bicyclists in a modern transportation scheme,” he wrote. “My reference to reckless bicyclists in the article was to those scofflaw bicyclists who put others and themselves in harm’s way. Utilizers of the Idaho Stop are not reckless.”

“I do not know why so many people are obsessed with bicyclists utilizing Idaho Stops when the drivers of most motor vehicles very rarely, if ever, stop at the white stop line at stop signs and encroach on crosswalks,” Keating added. “To me that is the far, far greater public safety concern.”

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  • You would cross Fullerton going southbound? Hm. I only did that going northbound.

    Going southbound you can’t see cars coming eastbound on Fullerton as well, especially ones that turn from NB Damen.
    Going northbound, however, you have a great view of the eastbound Fullerton traffic.

    The easiest intersections to cross on a red are a couple legs of Grand/Milwaukee/Halsted, and Milwaukee/Hubbard/Union.

  • Did the study describe what constitutes a “legal stop” for bicyclists?

  • My ideas on solutions…

    1. Be *more* conscientious of pedestrian spaces. Changing behavior for the sake of changing behavior is much more difficult than changing behavior in response to a differently designed situation, which is what my other two ideas address:
    2. Design pedestrian and bicycle spaces so they don’t interfere with each other. Ahem, “building bike lanes on the sidewalk”.
    3. Things that make pedestrians more visible to motorists also make them more visible to bicyclists, like bumpouts/curb extensions, and raised crosswalks. Build more of these.

  • Mcass777

    Pre construction. Stopped at the island southbound at Elston and Fullerton. When Damen got the green light, you only had to look for cars turning from northbound Damen to eastbound Fullerton. usually the intersection was empty. Westbound Fullerton had a red during this cycle.

  • What hope do pedestrians have of a biker yielding to us if the rules are loosened?

    Pedestrians have the hope of biking without having to stop every block.

  • JKM13

    One point I think most people miss (especially those who only drive), is how much speed comes into play in making the Idaho stop a safe maneuver.

    If you are only driving 12 MPH, a yield at intersections would be a perfectly safe maneuver, even with the reduced sight lines of an automobile (try it for a few blocks just as a test). We have stop signs every block because we’ve set expectations that cars should drive 30 mph even on residential side streets. If we reduced and enforced speeds to be lower (15?) we could likely replace most of our stop signs with yields. That’s likely a pipe dream due to change aversion and most people’s feeling that speeding down roads is a God Given Right that we’d be taking away, but at least allowing bikers to put safe, logical, rational behavior into law would be a first step.

  • Chicago Cyclist

    “Idaho Stops” by cyclists — when executed carefully, conscientiously, alertly, and politely (i.e. properly) — will absolutely INCREASE safety, not make it worse, for ALL roadway users. Research STRONGLY INDICATES this safety benefit — the recent DePaul study, as well as many other studies from around the world. The push against the Idaho Stop is based on ignorance — both ‘innocent’ ignorance (i.e. unfamiliarity with traffic safety engineering research) and willful ignorance (ignoring the facts / data / study results).

    Of course there are reckless cyclists; there are also reckless drivers (which is much much much more dangerous!); and their are also reckless pedestrians. This fact will not change with the Idaho stop. It will change with enforcement of reckless (i.e. dangerous) behavior. When it comes to traffic safety — to actually saving lives — what will give us the most “bang for our buck”? It is clear that heavy, fast, steel-clad vehicles (called cars and trucks) are the most dangerous things on the roads. Not cyclists and not pedestrians. That is simply a fact. Traffic enforcement should therefore strongly focus on motorists: 1) speeding, 2) running red lights, and 3) driving while fiddling with their phones (texting, surfing the web, looking at a map, talking, FaceTiming, etc. etc.). The best enforcement is obviously automated and consistent. Speeding, running red lights, and distracted driving are by far the most dangerous, deadly, and costly (in every sense of the word) road behaviors! As a cyclist who rides everyday, I see cars run through red lights at about 30% of the signals I stop at — they are almost always gunning it on yellow to avoid stopping. That is very different from — and much more dangerous than — a cyclist slowly approaching a red light, stopping, looking both ways twice, seeing that there are no cars approaching, and then pedaling on through. Idaho stops at stop signs (especially on local, lower-volume, lower-speed roads) — when done carefully, conscientiously, politely — are safe for both cars and bicyclist and are regularly done by both types of vehicles! That’s a fact.

    Drivers in the Chicago and the U.S. speed (and aggressively floor their cars off the line) a LOT — even when they are in urban areas where pedestrians — including seniors, kids, wheelchair users, and Moms with strollers (not to mention bicyclists) — are using the roads too! When cycling in Chicago, as I pass beside cars poking along, bumper to bumper, on Chicago’s and the region’s congested streets (sorry, but cars are the cause of this congestion!), I see that about 50-60% of the drivers are fiddling with their phones! That’s horrifying! If these drivers’ dangerous, irresponsible behavior were to result in only their injury or death, it might not be so bad. Culling of the herd, right? But they are endangering all other roadway users! This is not acceptable.

    Alertness, attention, care, calm, politeness, deference to the most vulnerable road users, not speeding, driving/cycling/walking defensively, knowing and carrying out the behavior that will best keep you and ALL OTHER roadway users safe — these are things that will make the roads safer for everyone. As regards traffic operations, the laws should reflect the reality of what will best keep the most people safe. Motor vehicle speeding is the main killer, not the Idaho Stop.