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

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.

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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