Red Lights and the Idaho Experiment

Posted by: Jan Heine Category: Cycling Safety

Red Lights and the Idaho Experiment


Running Red Lights
Few things raise the ire of motorists (and some cyclists) more than cyclists running red lights. Yet anybody who has ridden in major cities has seen riders proceeding through red lights. Why do they do this?

Cyclists operate on streets that are designed for cars. The current traffic infrastructure does not work as well for cyclists:

  • Many lights have sensors that do not pick up cyclists. Cyclists often wait at red lights for minutes, and the light only changes when a car pulls up behind them. If there is no traffic, they may wait for a very long time.
  • Cars travel mostly on big streets with few stop signs and timed lights. Cyclists tend to use side streets where they encounter stop signs or red lights every few blocks.
  • Cyclists travel at lower speeds and are less insulated from their surroundings, so they are more aware of traffic around them. As they approach an intersection, they usually know where other traffic is, without needing to come to a complete stop before checking for traffic from the right and left.

After waiting at lights that don’t change and after stopping at stop signs without encountering cross traffic, some cyclists take matters in their own hands and ignore these devices that clearly were not designed for them. Unfortunately, we don’t provide any guidance in this process, so many cyclists seem to see only two alternatives:

  • Obey all lights and stop signs
  • Ignore all lights and stop signs

The former are the cyclists who are waiting at a red light at 5 a.m., with no traffic anywhere nearby. The latter are the people who just blast through intersections on their bike without ensuring their safety or others’. Neither makes sense.

The “Idaho Stop”
An interesting alternative has been used in Idaho since 1982. There, cyclists are allowed to treat red lights as stop signs, and stop signs as yield signs. It’s commonly referred to as the “Idaho Stop”. Let’s look at what this means in practice:

  • Red light = stop sign: Cyclists stop and look right and left. If there is no cross traffic, they can proceed. If there is cross traffic, they wait.
  • Stop sign = yield sign: Cyclists look right and left. If there is no cross traffic, they can proceed without fully stopping. If there is cross traffic, they stop and yield.

These rules are clear and make sense. They don’t allow cyclists to run lights, nor be inconsiderate and cut off other traffic. But they do free cyclists from the unreasonable burden of having to stop or wait at empty intersections, time and again.

In Idaho, the law has been a success. There has been no increase in the numbers of cyclists involved in accidents. According to one official, cyclists “have more respect for a law that legalized actual riding behavior.” In other words, if you give people rules that make sense, most will follow them. And that may well reduce the number of inconsiderate cyclists who run lights and cut off other traffic. It adds a sensible alternative to the false choice of either “obeying” or “ignoring” all lights and stop signs. The “Idaho Stop” provides sensible rules of when to proceed and when to stop and wait.

Would it work in the city?
Idaho is a sparsely populated state with little traffic. Would the “Idaho Stop” work in a big city like Seattle? There is only one way to find out: Try it!
For six months, I used the “Idaho Stop” in Seattle. As outlined above, I didn’t run any lights, but after stopping, I proceeded if there was no traffic. At stop signs, I slowed down, but only came to complete stop if there was traffic.
In this experiment, I wanted to find out two things:

  1. Would this be dangerous? Traffic rules are there to protect us and others.
  2. What would be the reactions from other road users? One of the main arguments against proceeding through red lights is that it “gives cyclists a bad name”.

Well, for three months, I tried this experiment and I was upfront about it by wearing my Bicycle Quarterly jersey. Here is what I found:

It’s not dangerous
I did not have a single close call or near-miss. This was not surprising: I proceeded through intersections only if there was no cross traffic. During this whole time, I had one instance where I regretted turning in front of a car that was accelerating much faster than most cars around here. This happened during a legal “right-on-red” turn, not during the “Idaho Stop”. It wasn’t dangerous, but I felt inconsiderate. Note to self: Don’t cut it close during “right-on-red” or “Idaho Stops.”

I did have a few close calls with cars, but all of those happened when I was riding through green lights and oncoming cars turned left in front of me. This situation does not apply to the “Idaho Stop”, but it does show that simply following the traffic rules isn’t enough to make you safe. You need to take extra precaution to make up for the errors of other road users.

Complex situations
Once in a while, I encountered a complex situation, where it wasn’t obvious whether the Idaho Stop would be safe. For example, at some intersections, my direction only had a “plain” red light, but oncoming traffic had a turn lane with a “left arrow” light. Once, I was about to proceed through the intersection against a red light when, invisibly to me, the oncoming turn lane got a green light. If I had been in the middle of the intersection, this would have been inconsiderate. Note to self: Make sure you understand the intersection fully before using the “Idaho Stop”. Or perhaps even better: Don’t use the “Idaho Stop” if there is oncoming traffic waiting at the other side of the intersection.

It’s faster
My travel times across town went down significantly. During a 30-minute ride, I often spend 5 or more minutes waiting for lights to change, even though there is no traffic. And not stopping for all the stop signs kept my speed up and saved energy by not having to accelerate all the time. I could use that energy to ride faster. (A positive side effect is that riding faster allows you to flow better with traffic, decreasing your accident risk.)

It bothers few people
The most surprising result is that my “outlaw behavior” seemed to bother neither cyclists nor drivers (with one exception). If they thought I was “giving cyclists a bad name”, they kept their opinions to themselves. Perhaps they appreciated that I first stopped, and then proceeded, rather than “ran” the light. And no-one saw me rolling through the stop signs, since I only did so when the intersections were empty.

Once, I stopped right in front of a police officer directing traffic at the exit of a construction site. There was no traffic, so he was chatting with one of the construction workers. I was facing a red light, and I was not going to do the “Idaho Stop” this time… until the police officer, without breaking off his conversation, waved me through the intersection. It seems that the “Idaho Stop” might not be a big deal any more, even for the police.

During the three months of this experiment, three drivers yelled at me to “get off the road and use the bike path”. In two cases, the bike path was a block away. In the third case, the bike path was half a mile down the valley and going in an entirely different direction. Some drivers seem to think that if we spend money on separate infrastructure, then cyclists no longer have the right to ride on the road. This is something to consider as we build more “separated cyclepaths”.

One driver was bothered by my experiment. He was driving a van from the city parks department. He had leapfrogged me for a while, so he had seen me roll through two stop signs and proceed through one or two red lights. When he caught up with me again, he was livid about my “incredibly dangerous” behavior. I usually don’t stop and talk to irate drivers, but with him being in an official vehicle, I thought the risk of assault was low. As I explained the experiment, he calmed down and became very interested. Once he understood that I wasn’t just running lights and stop signs, but actually following rules that made sense, he wanted to learn more. I was impressed by his openness to these new ideas, and we parted very amicably. I promised to send him a note when this blog post goes up. If anything, this shows that if the “Idaho Stop” becomes law, some public outreach is needed to explain the new rules, not just to cyclists, but also to the general public.

To sum it up, three times as many drivers objected to me being on the road in the first place than objected to me doing the “Idaho Stop”.

Legalizing Actual Riding Behavior
The “Idaho Stop” has the potential to “legalize actual riding behavior”. Its clear rules provide guidance for cyclists who are tired of stopping and waiting at empty intersections.
One argument against the “Idaho Stop” is that compared to the hard-and-fast rules of “red light means stop”, the “Idaho Stop” requires more judgement and discretion from cyclists. But so do all stop and yield signs. And nobody has started a campaign to abolish all stop and yield signs…

What if other traffic does not know about the “Idaho Stop”? Isn’t that dangerous? I think the answer is “No”, because the “Idaho Stop” may only be used when there is no other traffic that could be impacted. When you do the “Idaho Stop”, you still don’t have the right-of-way. Period.

Right on Red
Some may be concerned about an erosion of the rule of law if we allow traffic to proceed through red lights. However, we already do that: Most states already allow a “Right on Red” when there is no traffic approaching from the left. You stop, check for traffic, and proceed if there isn’t any. The “Idaho Stop” simply adds a second exemption to an already existing one.

The “Right on Red” is beneficial for pedestrian safety when it moves right-turning cars through the intersection before pedestrians get a green light, reducing the risk of getting hit by a right-turning car.

Social acceptance
When I told my German relatives about the “Right-on-Red” after my first visit to the United States 25 years ago, they were incredulous. It offended their sensibilities that you could proceed even though the light was red. “But that is so dangerous!” they exclaimed. “It cannot work!” said others. The consensus was: “That is crazy!”

Today “Right-on-Red” is legal in Germany at certain intersections, and everybody is fine with it. It’s less dangerous than turning right on green, when you share the intersection with pedestrians and cyclists. Drivers who do so don’t give motorists a bad name. They aren’t scofflaws. All the “Right-on-Red” does is make traffic flow more smoothly and safely.

My experiment suggests that adopting the “Idaho Stop” everywhere would pose few risks and complications. It would make traffic flow more smoothly. It would provide rules that reflect actual cyclist behavior. And my experience in Seattle shows that even in a city whose citizens are known for policing each other, few people mind if cyclists ride responsibly, but don’t wait at empty intersections.

For those who prefer to follow the existing rules, there would be nothing to force them to change their behavior. By reducing the impression of “scofflaw cyclists” who “give cyclists a bad name” and increasing a positive view of cyclists, the roads would get safer for everybody. It’s a win-win situation.

To eliminate the problems I encountered at complex intersections, I suggest adding “if no traffic going in other directions is present at the intersection” to the rule.

Hopefully, the various bicycle advocacy groups will pick up the drive to make the “Idaho Stop” universal law. Why don’t you contact the League of American Bicyclists and your state’s bicycle advocacy organization and suggest a coordinated effort to adopt this positive change. Adopting the “Idaho Stop” is easy, and it doesn’t cost much (no new signs or infrastructure required, just outreach to inform citizens of the change in law). Most of all, it makes cycling safer and more efficient, and it encourages cyclists to follow the law.

Already, there is a Washington state law under consideration that allows cyclists to proceed through red lights if the trigger sensors don’t react to bicycles. Motorcyclists already have that exemption. Hopefully, this is one step toward making the “Idaho Stop” universal law.

As for me, my experiment is over, and I’ll now return to abiding the law. I’ll try to wait at every red light and stop at stop signs. I’ll plan some extra time during my commutes for this. And I’ll hope that our traffic laws will follow Idaho’s example soon and “legalized actual traffic behavior.”

Further reading:

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