Police in Idaho: Rolling Stop Sign Law Dandy

Recently I was giving a presentation in Nampa, Idaho, to a large group of transportation professionals. In the room: a police officer. I ask about Idaho’s unique stop sign law, as they are the one state that allows people on bikes to roll through stop signs if it is safe to do so. 

“How’s it working for you?” 

His response: a shoulder shrug and “fine.” He added, “Cyclists don’t stop anyway. We’ve got more pressing issues to deal with.” Plus, he himself rides as part of his duty. 

Mia and Nampa, ID officers and officials, about to set off on a bike tour.

Later, I was riding with another officer on the way to Ronald Reagan Elementary, a school of 500 kids that I was about to entertain with the Joyride story – kids’ version – a pop quiz on bicycle safety, and a “coolest helmet” contest.   

“Officer Moores,” I ask. “Doesn’t it make it hard for you to teach kids about obeying traffic signs when “stop” doesn’t always mean stop for bicyclists?” This is a common refrain from opponents of the rolling stop sign concept. 

His answer: “Nope.” No amount of prodding could get him or City officials, regional leaders, and school administrators to decry the law. 

I’ve written about this issue before for Momentum Magazine. That led the Portland Tribune to publish a version of the article, which led to a cavalcade of passionate letters and emails, many agreeing but many angrily denouncing my stance. “Same rights, same responsibilities,” most argued. 

To reiterate: a bicycle is not the same as a motor vehicle. As we evolve our understanding of the bicycle as a mainstream form of transportation for the masses, not just for fit adrenaline junkies on speedy bikes, so too must we evolve our traffic control devices and laws. You see, stop signs are placed at intersections to keep two-ton vehicles from crashing into each other. One to two hundred pound riders-with-bicycles do not need to come to a complete stop to avoid serious injury. While stop signs are an efficient and effective way to delineate right-of-way for motorists, cyclists need something different. 

This means either changing the way we control intersections (e.g. using yield signs and markings instead of stop signs) or adjusting the law as they have done in Idaho.  

Allow me to make this point crystal clear: OF COURSE people on bikes should yield to pedestrians!

 No one should act like a jerk, period. The Idaho stop law allows the officers to enforce egregious behavior, whether it involves failing to yield to a pedestrian or a motorist or another cyclist.

Further, I am NOT advocating that people run through traffic signals. [The Idaho law does permit cyclists to stop then proceed on a red light if there’s an adequate gap in traffic. I’m not in favor of this.] When the light is red, stop and stay stopped until the light turns green. The damage to the collective credibility of cyclists from you running that red light is significantly worse than the individual time gain. Nor am I advocating that people on bikes should blow through stop signs. Slow, prepare to stop, and stop, or wave and smile in thanks at the motorist who waved you through. 

I am advocating for a shift in our traffic control devices and/or laws to match reasonable and legitimate behavior. 

As recounted in this article, the Idaho law’s original sponsor – Carl Bianchi – was a cyclist. He was also the Administrative Director of the Courts in Idaho, and would later serve as the first Director of Legislative Services for the Idaho State legislature. Article excerpt:  

In his professional capacity, Bianchi had been approached by magistrates with complaints that law enforcement was ticketing cyclists for failure to come to a complete, foot-down stop. Magistrates considered these technical violations to be functional and common cycling behavior, but under the law, they had no option but to fine cyclists for these violations. Bianchi and the magistrates who were bringing these concerns to him felt that these “technical violations” were unnecessarily cluttering the courts. 

In each of the two previous years, bills to modernize the state’s bicycle laws had been introduced and failed. When the legislature initiated its revision of the state’s traffic code, Bianchi saw an opportunity to attach a modernized bicycle law onto the larger revision of the traffic code; with the assistance of cyclists and judicial officials, Bianchi agreed to draft a new bicycle code. 

Bianchi’s draft brought the bicycle code into close conformity with the Uniform Vehicle Code, with new provisions allowing cyclists to take the lane, or to merge left, when appropriate. Addressing the concerns of the state’s magistrates, the draft also contained a provision that allowed cyclists to treat a stop sign as a yield sign—the so-called “rolling stop law.” 

According to Bianchi, the law was delayed a year from its original passage in 1982, and then it took a governor’s veto in 1983 to allow it to go into effect, over efforts by driver trainers and law enforcement to repeal the law, and rural area legislators who opposed uniform bicycle codes of any kind in their communities.  Bianchi: 

“Then-Gov. John V. Evans vetoed the bill to repeal, stating, “We should be promoting wider use of bicycles because of the energy savings and physical benefits they provide.  We should also be encouraging safe operation of bicycles. The uniform laws accomplish both objectives.”  (Pretty farsighted, given today’s environment.)” 

The rolling stop law has given Idaho an improved environment for bicycle commuting and at the same time has been a safer and more reasonable alternative to traditional automobile stop laws.” 

Idaho may not be the country’s most bicycle friendly state overall, (it is ranked 30th by the League of American Bicyclists) but on this issue, they win the prize.

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