Red Lights and the Idaho Experiment

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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Comments (120)

  • Skip Montanaro

    However you adjust the rules of the road, whether it’s the Idaho Stop, right-turn-on-red, or other exceptions to following the strict letter of the law, I think it all boils down ultimately to moving (walking, driving, riding) so you never take the right-of-way from cars, pedestrians, or other cyclists.

    May 11, 2015 at 6:01 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I think that is a good rule. In Germany, the first article of the general traffic rules says: “Everybody must work together and treat each other with respect. Everything else is secondary.”

      May 11, 2015 at 7:16 am
      • Susan Kelley

        Working together and respect… A perfect solution!

        May 15, 2015 at 10:36 am
    • Johne

      “…may only be used when there is no other traffic that could be impacted.”
      I believe this is the basis for all the official rules of driving on public roads, whether by car or bike, or other vehicle. Most rules about right-of-way have clauses about how one shall not impede on coming traffic etc. I believe these days most do not understand the term “shall not impede” intends that those already in the intended drive lane should not have to alter their driving in any way to allow your turn/entrance/merge/back-up, etc (assuming they have the ROW) into the intended thoroughfare. That is to say I agree with the above comment, and think it is legally based in the rules of the roads.

      May 12, 2015 at 8:01 pm
  • azorch

    We have a similar law in Missouri (but interestingly, NOT just across the border in Kansas.) I can’t quote the statute, but I’m made to understand that cyclists may proceed unabated through an intersection if cross traffic or right of way is clear. This places the onus of responsible and sensible behavior upon each individual cyclist, and I’ve witnessed some egregious examples of cycling stupidity along with a relative norm of smart cycling decisions. Local law enforcement is not always up to speed on this statute, by the way. I was witness to a stern warning given to a cyclist for not coming to a full stop at a stop sign, even though no other traffic was to be seen. No idea whether this statute has had any effect upon cyclist safety. As always, I believe in being aware of my surroundings anytime I ride, regardless of statute.

    May 11, 2015 at 6:09 am
    • Johan

      I’m curious – can you quote the statute? I am originally from Missouri, and I know of no such law.

      May 11, 2015 at 7:53 am
  • Patrick Moore

    My comments regards the “use the bike path” type of comment. As a long-time urban cyclist, I’ve learned to ride with a combination of aggressiveness — eg, don’t hug the curb; pull out to the center of the lane while waiting to go straight at a red light; use hand gestures to indicate oncoming left turners at a red light that you intend to go straight — and politeness — basically, signal intentions, wave cars through at 4 way stops, obey traffic laws in presence of auto traffic, nod “thanks” if waved through.
    I’ve found that in so riding, “get off the road” encounters are few and far between (thank God) at least in NM, but we do get the occasional idiot, and my own tendency when told “get off the road!” is to explode. What is your reaction? How do you deal with this sort of enmity?
    As an aside, I cut my urban cycling teeth as a boy of 12 and 13 in Bangalore and Delhi, where bicycles were ubiquitous in traffic, traffic was far more lawless than in the US, and (as far as I remember) there were no more altercations between cyclists and motorists than between motorists and motorists. As usual, ubiquity seems to be the justification for acceptance!

    May 11, 2015 at 6:13 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I wouldn’t call it “aggressiveness” but “assertiveness”, but otherwise, I totally agree.
      My reaction is to ignore the comments. No good comes out of a confrontation with somebody whose motives usually go far beyond the obvious. In most cases, it’s not that your presence on the road is the concern, but what they think you stand for: environmentalist, city-dweller, leftist, who-knows-what… I ignore them – with the exception of the driver of the city-owned van I mentioned in the post.

      May 11, 2015 at 7:20 am
      • Greg

        I agree, and I would add ‘avoid direct eye contact with the perp.’ Be aware of where he/she is at all times, and watch him/her with your peripheral vision, but don’t look directly at him/her. It tends to diffuse the situation more quickly, in my experience.

        May 11, 2015 at 8:07 am
    • Andy

      I try to note the license plate in my head, just in case they decide later down the road to confront me again.

      May 11, 2015 at 12:43 pm
      • Greg

        That is also an excellent idea….

        May 11, 2015 at 6:23 pm
  • capejohn

    Those of us who have been riding a long time have developed a keen sense of the flow of traffic. We are not law nannies nor are we scofflaws. We know when it’s safest to stop at traffic control. We know when it’s safe to ride through but we also know when it makes no difference whether we stop or not. As an example. On a bike at a red light when there is not traffic within sight. Do we stop and whistle a homey tune, or ride through?
    Personally, I look for any indication that I can ride through a red light or stop sign. If someone is offended I think of THIS

    May 11, 2015 at 6:36 am
  • capejohn

    My code didn’t take so here is the link. It’s a riot.

    May 11, 2015 at 6:37 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Just a warning – there is potentially offensive language in the above link…

      May 11, 2015 at 7:23 am
      • Michael

        I’ll skip it. One of the things I enjoy about this blog is the courteous language and lack of profanity. This is an unwelcome first that I have seen.

        May 11, 2015 at 2:03 pm
    • Greg

      That’s mildly humorous (and quite puerile), but mainly a great way to end up dead right, right quick…. 😉

      May 11, 2015 at 8:13 am
  • ORiordan

    Very interesting observations. In my commute through central London I encounter no less than 87 traffic lights over a 10 mile journey (yes, I’ve counted them all…) so I would welcome measures to speed this journey up..
    Unfortunately in the UK the authorities are totally against permitting vehicles proceeding through red lights under any circumstances. They think it would undermine a traffic culture of red = total stop. It seems like dogma over pragmatism to me. I don’t think there are any plans to introduce any of the measures discussed in your article.
    The “give cyclists a bad name” point is a topic in its own right! My observation would be that every year drivers kill and injure millions, kill millions more through air pollution, break every traffic law there is and they STILL don’t have a bad name! 😉 It is really a consequence of cyclists being a minority (psychologists call it “out group homogeneity”) therefore are perceived to be collectively responsible while with the majority, it is just the individual at fault. The same thing happens with other minorities in society.

    May 11, 2015 at 6:39 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      You make a good point – the hatred toward cyclists really is almost a civil rights issue. Few drivers get irate when they have to follow agricultural machinery or military vehicles on the road, but if a cyclist is taking the lane or even daring to ride two abreast…

      May 11, 2015 at 7:24 am
      • Andy

        I haven’t had a good opportunity to say it yet, but the next time someone tells me to use a bike path, I’ll ask them to stick to the highways. Seems fair.

        May 11, 2015 at 12:44 pm
    • Greg

      “In my commute through central London I encounter no less than 87 traffic lights over a 10 mile journey (yes, I’ve counted them all…)….”
      Now you know how many lights it takes to fill the Albert Hall……. 🙂

      May 11, 2015 at 8:16 am
    • marmotte27

      Each stop on a bike costs as much energy as 80 metres more distance. 12 lights add about 1 kilometer to your trip.

      May 11, 2015 at 1:37 pm
  • somervillebikes

    I agree completely that bicycle laws should make sense to cyclists, and not necessarily recapitulate motor vehicle law. Towns and cities where I live are seeing exponential growth in cycling, and even for the first time since the early 2000s, a *decrease* in the number of motor vehicles. These municipalities are building 100s of miles of new bike infrastructure to deal with those numbers, but sadly the laws are much slower to evolve. I agree that something similar to the Idaho Stop would make sense in larger cities, as you experimented yourself. However, dealing with pedestrians is another part of that equation. Where I live there is a very high density of pedestrians, and they get their own Walk signal at intersections. Many pedestrians are startled when cyclists go through red lights while they are crossing the street during the Walk signal. My town is clamping down on cyclists who blow through the red light during the Walk signal (the city seems more concerned with cycling through the Walk signal than with cycling through the red light, which I suppose is a good thing, because at least they’re looking out for pedestrian safety). So for intersections where there is a high volume of pedestrian traffic, I think there needs to be another, more nuanced, solution than the Idaho Stop.

    May 11, 2015 at 6:54 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      The Idaho rule is clear on this: If there is other traffic who has the right-of-way, you need to stop at a red light. Pedestrians count as traffic, don’t they? However, if the intersection is empty, the cyclist can proceed after stopping first. It seems to me that such a rule would make pedestrians safer than one that requires cyclists to wait at empty intersections – which leads to many cyclists ignoring the rule altogether.

      May 11, 2015 at 7:27 am
      • somervillebikes

        I would agree with that. I didn’t realize the Idaho rule was clear on pedestrian right of way.

        May 11, 2015 at 10:22 am
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          I should point out that this was my interpretation of the rule. What the actual law says may be something different, but I am operating from the point of view of what it should say… (since it isn’t the law in WA State anyhow.)

          May 11, 2015 at 10:24 am
      • Hriday Santos

        In my experience pedestrian and cyclist incidents happen for one of two reasons, the first being that cyclists are some times forced onto sidewalks or other areas frequented by pedestrians due to aggressive and or inattentive drivers and or unsafe road conditions and the second being that pedestrians often either don’t notice and or severely under estimate a cyclist’s speed. A bell does help with the latter, but unfortunately pedestrians sometimes don’t notice the rather melodious brass bell I use and or pull the “freeze” when a cyclist comes upon the, forcing the bicycle which is obviously less agile than the pedestrian to make radical evasive maneuvers. I’m not advocating reckless cycling but the road hierarchy has always been pedestrian most vulnerable, least culpable up to car least vulnerable, most culpable. fallowing the afore mentioned hierarchy the cyclist is then required to give right of way to pedestrians because his vehicle is faster and presumably more dangerous. Sadly, particularly at slower speeds, a pedestrian cyclist incident where the pedestrian “freezes” during that indecisive moments probably puts the cyclist in more danger than the pedestrian because even a slow speed fall for a cyclist can be grave whilst a simple assertive step in the right direction by the pedestrian would be sufficient to avoid a potentially dangerous situation for the cyclist.

        May 11, 2015 at 6:24 pm
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          I actually prefer pedestrians to freeze, so I can move around them. Otherwise, they tend to step exactly in the direction that I am heading… As to being hit by a bike, it’s surprisingly dangerous. There are many sharp, protruding parts that can do enormous damage. If you had a choice between getting hit by a modern passenger car (not truck or SUV) or a bike at 20 mph, pick the car…

          May 11, 2015 at 6:31 pm
      • ORiordan

        “If you had a choice between getting hit by a modern passenger car (not truck or SUV) or a bike at 20 mph, pick the car…”
        I can’t reply directly underneath this comment but felt I should respond.
        If I had the choice of what to collide with, I’d pick with the bike, every time.
        Comparing the kinetic energy or momentum of, say, a 80kg person on a 10kg bike travelling at the same speed as a 80kg person driving a 1500 kg car, the car will have about 18 times the kinetic energy or momentum of the bike.
        That kinetic energy or momentum needs to go somewhere. In a collision with the bike, a lot will go into knocking the rider off their bike. In a collision with the car, some may be absorbed by crumple zones but the rest will go into your body so will cause direct injury and send you flying into the air and further injury when you hit the ground.
        I know an arrow doesn’t weigh much but can kill you, but realistically, what parts on a bike will impale a pedestrian? Maybe something like aero-bars but what else? It is a bike, not a Roman chariot with spikes on the wheels…

        May 12, 2015 at 1:08 am
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          I suspect the parts most likely to impale the pedestrian are the brake levers. I am not speculating, I know of several fatal accidents where pedestrians were hit by bicycles. Modern cars are designed to lift the pedestrian onto the hood, which is very soft. Then they roll onto the windshield, which also can absorb a lot of energy.
          Of course, the real answer is: You don’t want to get hit by either. But the idea that bicycles are benign is leading to a lot of careless behavior on bike paths… especially by pedestrians.

          May 12, 2015 at 6:37 am
  • Matthew Moritz

    I read the Idaho law, and it doesn’t really address this directly, how do you treat a red light with no turn on red combination under your Idaho Stop experiment rules?

    May 11, 2015 at 6:58 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I’d treat it as a stop sign again. However, the “no turn on red” sign is used only in intersections where there is so much cross traffic that the “right on red” is unsafe. If there is cross traffic, you obviously wouldn’t go under “Idaho Stop” rules.

      May 11, 2015 at 7:28 am
  • Frank B.

    You wrote: ‘Today “Right-on-Red” is legal in Germany at certain intersections, and everybody is fine with it.’ I strongly disagree here: I’m not fine with the Germany solution and I don’t know many cyclists in Germany who would be.
    I suppose you are talking about the “Grünpfeil” (“Green Arrow”), a traffic sign the unified Germany inherited from the GDR, see the German Wikipedia entry here: (it’s not just a translated version of the English page.)
    A Gruenpfeil is a terrible thing, that gives cars the right to run a red light at the expense of the protection of vulnerable road users i.e. pedestrians and cyclists. A lot of deadly accidents betwen cars and cyclists happen when cars turn right (or left in GB/AUS/…) and cross the path of cyclists going straight. The Gruenpfeil fosters this behaviour: drivers going right, but looking left for traffic, overlooking weaker road users on their right. The result: “Sorry mate, I didn’t see you. And I had a green arrow!”
    A few German cities are removing Gruenpfeils from their intersections again, and pedestrian and cyclists activst groups are lobbying for a complete ban of the Gruenpfeil. It’s a deadly sign.
    Note that a kind of Gruenpfeil only for cyclists would be a good thing, though. But then I’d rather have a good cycling infrastructure like the Dutch have, where this is superfluous.

    May 11, 2015 at 8:18 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      There seems to be a misunderstanding. The “Right on Red” or “Grünpfeil” does not imperil vulnerable road users. Cars can turn right on red, but pedestrians and cyclists have a red light at this time, so there is no conflict.
      It’s not the “right on red” that is dangerous, but the “right on green”. During the “right on green”, both cars and pedestrians have a green light, but cars often turn at high speed, and don’t look for pedestrians. The logical solution would be to outlaw the “right on green” and require cars to turn right only when there are no pedestrians and cyclists in the intersection…
      The biggest problem with the “Right on Red” is that it offends people’s sense of order. “Red means Stop”, so allowing cars to proceed with their right turn before pedestrians enter the intersection may make sense, but it doesn’t seem right to many people.

      May 11, 2015 at 9:42 am
      • Mike

        Um, pedestrians have a walk signal in the crosswalk going in front of the right-on-red car during the red cycle. The grandparent post is correct, the right-on-red has proved incredibly dangerous for pedestrians. (Because pedestrians with a legal right of way to cross the intersection from the turning car’s right to the turning car’s left get run over when the car starts moving while the driver is staring off the left.)

        May 11, 2015 at 11:17 am
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          I see what you are saying – the pedestrians who are crossing right in front of the car have the green light. However, that “conflict” is pretty easy to understand for both parties, since they face each other, and the car is required to stop before proceeding. Some education may be required to make sure drivers look both ways before proceeding. In places where pedestrians are common, they usually do so anyhow.
          The more dangerous conflict is the one of both pedestrian and driver coming from the same direction, but the driver turning right – the dreaded “right hook”. In this situation, the car is behind the pedestrian, and the pedestrian is off to the side in the car’s blind spot. That seems to be the more dangerous situation, especially since the car is allowed to proceed at speed, since they have a green light. (See also Patrick Moore’s anecdotal piece below.)

          May 11, 2015 at 11:25 am
      • B. Carfree

        (Replying to this and your follow-up). You’re simply wrong here, Jan. Where right on red (AFTER STOPPING) is legal, motorists universally run the red light and do not look to their right for pedestrians who are crossing with a green across the turning motorist’s path. It creates an incredibly dangerous situation in practice, which is simply reality. Many local pedestrians have taken to mid-block crossing of busy five-lane roads simply because it is safer than dealing with the right-on-red motorists.
        As far as what happens when motorists turn right on a green light and their conflict with pedestrians: Those pedestrians are directly in the motorist’s line of sight (unlike above, where the motorist is looking the other way). Sure, there are motorists who will still turn into pedestrians that they can see right in front of them, but this issue is much rarer.
        And yes, I walk a lot. I typically walk on urban/suburban roads about twenty hours per week.

        May 11, 2015 at 4:39 pm
      • Frank B.

        Jan, you speak German and so I recommend that you should read at least the Wikipedia article, or better yet, the study by the University of Dresden / Unfallforschung der Versicherer linked from there. This clearly staes, that a Gruenpfeil “brings no significant advantages in traffic flow, but on the other hand it can lead to an impediment of pedestrians and cyclists”, see
        I have to cross several Gruenpfeil intersections here in Cologne every day on my way to work, and they are the most conflict-prone intersections I encouter on my commute.
        For example, turning right is optional, so car drivers who want to turn right but would like to wait for proper green get honked at and harassed by drivers behind them. I have even seen cars use the sidewalk to turn right, and this happened not just once. Two thirds of all car drivers according to the studies do no stop properly at Gruenpfeil intersections.
        Also a common safety measure in Germany is having an advanced green for cyclists and pedestrians, so that these can cross the road before cars get green for turning right. This doesn’t play well at all with Right on Red either.
        “People’s sense of order” in traffic planning is not a problem, it actually makes traffic a safer place: Traffic rules must be easy to understand, traffic infrastructure must be “predictabe” (see the rules of “Sustainable Safety” in dutch traffic planning). Right on red violates this principle. There are much better approaches to make a safe and fast intersection: Simultanous green, removal of traffics lights, roundabouts, the “standard dutch junction” etc. Right on Red for cars is the worst solution, and hundreds of junctions in Germany prove this. I invite you to come with me on a Gruenpfeil-tour through Cologne the next time you’re in Germany!

        May 12, 2015 at 2:00 am
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          Perhaps the Grünpfeil isn’t working well in Cologne – it may need more education and/or enforcement – but in the U.S., it’s been working well for decades. I can see the conflict with the “Advanced green” for peds – we don’t have that here. I disagree that “right on red” is not predictable. It’s like a stop sign. Except perhaps that people have a choice of turning or not… so as good Germans, we should make it mandatory!

          May 12, 2015 at 6:40 am
      • Mike

        Yes, right-on-red is predictable: it’s predictable that the driver doesn’t look right while not stopping and turning right. There’s a reason pedestrian advocates have tried to get rid of the law: it’s horribly biased against pedestrians. I would suspect that the reason there aren’t more deaths is that pedestrians have basically given up trying to cross the street when people are making right turns on red. It’s gotten to the point where I sometimes knock on a window to get a driver’s attention before stepping into a crosswalk where I have the right of way! (There’s also very little science around this: police reports are notoriously unreliable–as seen when comparing witnessed accidents to the submitted reports–and there hasn’t even been a national study on the issue in the past twenty years despite the explosion in the non-car mode share. There is growing evidence that crossing mid-block is actually safer than crossing at an intersection, and the issue of cars moving in directions that the drivers aren’t looking is probably a big part of why.)
        I think you’re biased here by spending so much time cycling. The right hook on green is much more commonly dangerous *for cyclists* because the cyclist comes up behind the motorist at a relatively high rate of speed and the motorist isn’t looking at/for the cyclist. *For pedestrians*, the right turn on green happens when the motorist is looking directly at the pedestrian, and is relatively safe.
        The solution to the right hook on green is to simply take the lane and not allow a car on your left at an intersection–not to advocate for the pedestrian-hostile right-on-red.

        May 12, 2015 at 7:03 am
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          I take your point on the “right-on-red” being dangerous to pedestrians. Yes, I have tapped on drivers’ windows myself! In Seattle, drivers are very timid, so they do stop before turning. (It’s one of the few situtations where being timid may have advantages for other road users.) You are right, as a cyclist, I am mostly concerned about the right hook. That one can kill me! Taking the lane is a great solution – unless you are on one of those new cyclepaths…
          I will reconsider my position on the “right-on-red”.
          Your comment on it being safer to cross mid-block is interesting. It makes sense to “unbundle” the complex situation at intersections, and have the pedestrians cross in a place where they don’t compete for the attention of drivers with all sorts of other traffic.

          May 12, 2015 at 7:15 am
      • Andy

        The pedestrians crossing that I find most useful are mid-block, and I’ve seen a few great ones in Seattle. A mid-block crossing, with flashing lights embedded in the road, which is triggered by a motion sensor on the side of the road is ideal. The pedestrian comes to the side of the road, doesn’t have to hit any buttons or wait more than a few seconds, and nearly instantly you can watch the cars slow down and let you cross.
        Some cities (nearly) ban right on red. Most of my riding was in Ithaca, NY, where most downtown intersections don’t allow them. Of course, many drivers still make the turns illegally, but in my experience they tend to stop, actually look, and then turn. My experience in California was that drivers tend to just roll through at 10mph, but the intersections in LA are also so huge that sight lines are much less of a problem than in a small city like Ithaca.

        May 12, 2015 at 7:24 am
      • Frank B.

        Jan wrote: “I disagree that “right on red” is not predictable. It’s like a stop sign.” If it’s indeed that, then why not disassemble the traffic light and install a proper stop or yield sign? I’m all for reducing the number of traffic lights, if they are not needed. However the “right on red” makes the junction ambiguous, witout any gain. No amount of education will be able to fix that. At least that’s the result of 20 years of Grünpfeil in all of Germany. (Drivers in Cologne aren’t any worse than the rest.)

        May 12, 2015 at 7:53 am
    • Patrick Moore

      The one time I’ve been hit by a car while riding a bike (thank God only minor injuries) was when in the bike lane and starting out to go straight at a new green light; the car to my left turned right and hit me.
      Since then, I always and ruthlessly pull out to the center or even “center left” of the rightmost lane (and, of course, I don’t use right turn only lanes as go-straight lanes) so that (1) no one can make a right hook around me and, (2) it leaves room for at least reasonably wide vehicles behind me to make the turn without affecting my position.
      Segway: about ignoring idiots who think cyclists should be on the sidewalk. I once was in the center of the rightmost lane on a major boulevard at a red light. A big white pickup pulled up on my right, in the right turn lane; as the driver turned, he yelled, “I hate bikers!”
      Instead of giving him the one finger salute, I motioned him over and, as the light changed, went through and waited as he — indeed — made a U turn and came back. (I made sure to stand near a light pole!) Anyway, I asked him “What’s your problem?” and all the resentment at clueless idiots riding blithely through stoplights near the University, and arrogant roadies riding 3 abreast on the narrow, winding mountain roads near the driver’s property, came spilling out.
      Of course, said driver was driving a needlessly wide and long pickup as a city runabout, but that’s another matter.
      I explained how I’ve been riding “as part of traffic” since a wee lad, etc etc etc, and — important! — that bicycles have a right to the infrastructure per city and state law. We parted amicably and, I hope, I helped an impatient driver see cyclists in a new light.

      May 11, 2015 at 11:22 am
      • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

        I’ve had a few encounters where it felt safe to engage, and we did part amicably. However, a friend has been assaulted twice after losing his temper after people passed too close and yelled at him. It’s not worth the trouble.
        Generally, I think we need to “legalize actual riding behavior” and create rules that work for everybody, so that we don’t have as many cyclists who feel that the laws don’t consider their needs (making them outlaws?) and in turn disregard all traffic rules.

        May 11, 2015 at 11:29 am
  • phr3dly

    This is a very interesting blog post; I’ll confess that when driving I get frustrated by cyclists behaving “unpredictably” around traffic. For example track-standing at lights with the occasional ‘360’ to recover balance, or switching between the traffic lane and cross-walk. The problem is similar to walking dogs on a MUP. While the dog-walker may be 100% sure that his dog is behaving in a predictable and safe manner, as a cyclist I have to assume that the dog might dart out in front of me at any point. In Portland I’ve had few problems, but in Seattle I’d frequently see huge peletons ride straight through stop signs simply expecting everyone else to yield.
    Your experiment replicates how I generally ride. When there is no traffic, I’ll slow down/look, then ride through stop signs. At red lights I’ll nearly always stop, then proceed when safe. But when there’s much real traffic, I generally wait it out to avoid the ‘unpredictable’ issue in the paragraph above. I’d love for traffic rules to legitimize the natural and safe riding behavior, which then perhaps gives the ‘scofflaws’ a legal way to minimize traffic without just running everything.
    Incidentally, you comment on the ‘right on red’ rule in your post. Many people don’t realize that ‘left on red’ is also legal in most states. There are restrictions; you must be turning onto a one-way (a freeway onramp counts as one-way), and you have to yield to pedestrians (obviously). The other catch is that even many officers don’t realize it’s legal, so you should be prepared to explain if/when you get stopped 🙂

    May 11, 2015 at 9:09 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      in Seattle I’d frequently see huge peletons ride straight through stop signs simply expecting everyone else to yield.

      It is this behavior that the “Idaho Stop” addresses: It makes it clear that you can roll through stop signs, but only if there is no other traffic that has the right-of-way.

      May 11, 2015 at 9:44 am
      • seattlerider22

        I do many group rides in Seattle. When coming to a stop sign with other traffic present, we will stop, but once it’s our turn we will proceed through the intersection as one peloton. This is the most efficient and expedient method to get through the intersection. The ‘legal’ way is for bikes to pass one at a time, alternating with crossing traffic. I would love to film 20 cyclists proceeding 1×1 though a busy intersection thus holding up any traffic behind the peloton to point out how ridiculous this law is in practice.

        May 12, 2015 at 3:43 pm
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          In Europe, “convoys” count as one vehicle, so the practice you describe is legal. Convoys are usually military convoys (especially during the cold war, long lines of U.S. Army trucks and tanks rattled through the towns), but also protest marches. In theory, if the first protester encounters a red light, all 10,000 following must stop. Once they light turns green, they all can go, even if the light turns red again.
          How is it handled for funeral processions in the U.S.? I don’t think they split up if a light turns red while they pass.

          May 12, 2015 at 5:15 pm
  • Tim Mueller

    I hadn’t heard of the Idaho rule before, but it makes such good sense I’m surprised its use isn’t more widespread. Here in Virginia, cyclists are allowed to proceed through a red light provided they “come to a full and complete stop at the intersection for two complete cycles of the traffic light or for two minutes, whichever is shorter.”

    May 11, 2015 at 9:23 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      The Virginia law makes some sense – many traffic lights don’t recognize cyclists. However, once you know that a sensor on your regular route won’t be triggered by your bike, it’s quite onerous having to wait through two light cycles every time…

      May 11, 2015 at 9:45 am
    • B. Carfree

      There is no way to wait through two cycles, or even one, when the signal in question trips only for demand. If the sensor detects you, then you get the green. If it doesn’t, there is no cycle to wait out.
      Oregon (and I believe Washington) currently have bills pending that are copies of Virginia’s silly dead red law. It’s painfully obvious that we don’t have any legislators who ride.

      May 11, 2015 at 4:43 pm
      • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

        In some cases, where the intersection is more complex, or when there is oncoming traffic, there actually are light cycles that skip the cyclist waiting alone in one direction. However, you are right, if you are waiting at a deserted light at 5 a.m., you won’t get any light cycles. I guess that is where the “or 2 minutes” that I have seen in one statute comes in. You wait for 2 minutes (awfully long, by the way, if you have 10 lights on your commute, add 20 minutes!), then go. Of course, most riders would just go… and I think it would be best to legalize this “actual riding behavior”.

        May 11, 2015 at 4:59 pm
  • Bill Edmonds

    Good write-up. FWIW, I ride basically per your experiment all the time (42 yrs a road rider, since the age of 14). One important point that I think many people miss – on a bike, a complete stop is not just a convenience or time issue, it is a safety issue. On a bike, being a balance vehicle, forward motion is your lifeline. In traffic, starting up from a complete stop, you are least balanced and most vulnerable, most likely to wobble into the path of a motor vehicle. You are disengaging your “engine”. Requiring a bicyclist to come to a complete stop at stop signs is NOT the equivalent of an automobile coming to a complete stop – it is the equivalent of requiring the automobile to stop and put the transmission in PARK at every stop sign.

    May 11, 2015 at 9:29 am
  • Noel Howes

    On commute to work I have adopted the “I am a polite car” rule. I stop behind the white bar before the crosswalk. It makes me squirm when I see cyclists encroach or threaten the pedestrian right of way by rolling into and past the crosswalk. I was recently berated by a young woman for going by her as she crossed parallel with me then veered before the actual crosswalk in front of me. Pedestrians can be erratic so I watch ’em.
    Also, I did, a number of years ago, get a ticket from a motorcycle officer for going ahead through a red light to get ahead of traffic by some construction so I could get out of traffic by taking the next turn. Made sense to me but not to the officer. The magistrate reduced the fine with the comment “she must have thought you were a messenger, they have a thing for them”.

    May 11, 2015 at 9:34 am
  • MichaelR

    Would it work in a city? Perhaps like Boise? Good of you to undertake the experiment. Bad of you to slight Boise.

    May 11, 2015 at 9:42 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Sorry, didn’t mean to slight Boise! I just wanted to see for myself what would happen if one adopted the Idaho rules in Seattle or similar metropolitan areas.

      May 11, 2015 at 9:47 am
  • Z. Fechten

    It might help if the average driver knew how traffic engineers decide whether to use a stop sign or a yield sign. It largely comes down to visibility. If drivers on the side road can see main road traffic well enough that they can tell whether it’s safe to go through without stopping, a yield sign may be used. If not, a stop sign should be installed.
    More visibility is needed at higher speeds. The go/no go decision point is 285 ft before the intersection at 55 mph. At 15 mph, it’s 70 ft. So, the are a lot of intersections where motor vehicles need to stop, but yielding is perfectly safe at bicycle speeds.

    May 11, 2015 at 10:14 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      It would be nice if those standards were used uniformly. In Washington State, yield signs are extremely rare, and used only where stopping would create a major traffic hassle, like on on-ramps. Here, you find stop signs at intersections where visibility is far beyond what is needed.
      I noticed that in France, yield signs commonly are used where it is reasonable. For example, a small sideroad crossing a bigger two-lane highway. In the U.S., you’d find a stop sign. In France, if visiblity is good, you get a yield sign. It felt very strange to just blow across a major highway without stopping, but there wasn’t a car within half a mile each way…

      May 11, 2015 at 10:23 am
      • Doug

        There are a lot fewer stop signs in Seattle than other cities I’ve been to. Most notably, the large swaths of densely gridded “street car suburbs” have thousands of 4-way intersections with no stop signs. Many have little roundabouts but lots of them are completely uncontrolled. The effect is that all users are yielding.

        May 11, 2015 at 4:27 pm
  • Paul Glassen

    It is for another discussion but this post brought to mind the subject of “Shared Space” intersections employed in more and more European and British cities, the invention of the late Dutch road engineer, Hans Moderman. In Shared Space all signage is removed, even centre lines and sidewalks. The goal is for people to revert to ‘social behaviour’ where we treat others as fellow vulnerable human beings – imagine that? They are surprisingly successful.
    It brings to mind my belief that part of the danger of the automobile is the presumption of anonymity or even invisibility by the driver. No cyclist suffers this delusion. Hence my proposal to ban roofs and windshields on cars. The exposure would probably slow people down. And those who didn’t like it would do the next logical thing and take the bus.

    May 11, 2015 at 12:29 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      In a criterium race, a huge pack of racers moves in very close spaces at high speeds with no signs or other traffic regulation devices, yet – at least among the more experienced racers – accidents are rare. If you slow things down a bit and add a little space, it should work for everybody.

      May 11, 2015 at 1:20 pm
    • ORiordan

      I have personal experience of cycling in so-called “shared space” in London and personally, I think it is snake-oil peddled by consultants who convince the local authorities that they can somehow transform an area without reducing the volume of motor traffic. It doesn’t work. If the volume of motor traffic is beyond a certain threshold, then the motor traffic simply dominates the area, irrespective of fancy paving, lack of markings and signs.
      I think the original concept in the Netherlands was applied to residential areas with low volumes of traffic but in the UK, it has been mistakenly applied to streets with high volumes of traffic and it achieves nothing.
      Pedestrians hate it because they continue to feel unsafe because of motor traffic – particularly blind or partially sighted pedestrians who have lost the sanctuary of the footpath and don’t know if they are straying onto the road. It does nothing for cyclists if the volume of motor traffic is the same. How many mothers would be happy with their 8 year old on a bike “sharing” with a 40 ton truck?

      May 11, 2015 at 4:43 pm
  • Andy

    While I think that the Idaho stop would work well for competent cyclists, there are certainly a lot of people on bikes who did not fit that category, and would likely not understand the complexities of right-of-way in all situations. There are already too many crashes even though people are required to stop in 49 other states, so I wonder what the increase would be if all states used the Idaho stop. If you (Jan, as a most experienced cyclist) encountered a complex situation during your trial, imagine how many novice cyclists would frequently find themselves in intersections that they don’t yet understand. It’s simple to say “don’t take the right of way if it’s not yours”, but many cyclists wouldn’t know if they had the right of way unless there was more education. Most of us did not take lessons on how to bike, since it’s otherwise fairly easy to use the roads.
    Like all things traffic-related, what most of us do by default keeps us safe nearly all the time. But opening possibilities for more confusion will increase those times that bad decisions are made and lives are lost. I don’t think it would be prudent for states to try to redefine stops. I’d rather police just put their efforts towards the most unsafe behaviors, which would take the burden of safe cycling and put it on unsafe driving.

    May 11, 2015 at 12:56 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      would likely not understand the complexities of right-of-way in all situations.

      They already have to understand the “complexities of right-of-way” at stop and yield signs. The “Idaho Rules” don’t change anything, except re-designate red lights as stop signs. If it works in Idaho…

      I wonder what the increase would be if all states used the Idaho stop.

      Again, you seem to assume that Idaho is somehow exceptional. Accident rates have not increased in Idaho with the “Idaho Stop”, yet you assume they’d increase elsewhere if the same laws were enacted…

      May 11, 2015 at 1:23 pm
      • Andy

        As much as novice cyclists may know the right of way, they may lack the experience to know when it’s safe to proceed in all situations. To quote a very expert cyclist: “I had one instance where I regretted turning in front of a car that was accelerating much faster than most cars around here.” You have the experience to know how to handle that situation mid-turn and avoid a potential crash. My fear is that a novice cyclist would not.
        You wrote that accident rates have not increased in Idaho, but I’m not seeing any sources. The Wikipedia page seems to only list one study from 2010, but there is no link to access it. Were you able to read that study?

        May 11, 2015 at 1:47 pm
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          Note that the uncomfortable situation occurred during a legal “right on red”. It wasn’t dangerous… I did have a few close encounters during these 6 months, but they all were during “straight on green”… So I think it’s a red herring to say that novice cyclists can’t deal with the complexities of stop and yield signs, but throw them into traffic where cars will turn even if the cyclist has the right-of-way.

          May 11, 2015 at 2:24 pm
    • Matthew J

      Many Chicago cyclists either do not know or do not care to follow right of way conventions.
      While certainly no where near as dangerous as oblivious drivers*, near misses with cyclists either failing to yield the right of way, going the wrong way on a one way street, or jockeying for the lead spot at traffic stops is a daily occurrence on my commute,
      *Despite the many efforts to educate auto drivers, my impression is that texting while driving continues its upswing. Maybe I should accept this as a possibly good thing? Theorhetically, eople who don’t want to stop texting may be more apt to take public transit.

      May 12, 2015 at 5:25 am
      • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

        My impression is that when people don’t think the law considers their needs, they disregard the law. I saw that in Tokyo, where until recently, traffic planners pretended that cyclists did not exist – even though there were and are hundreds of thousands of cyclists. The cyclists disregard all traffic laws. They go slowly, but they never stop for red lights or stop signs. Yet when walking, the same people stop at empty crosswalks when the light is red! It seems that as cyclists, they don’t view the laws as applicable to them, but as pedestrians (for whom there are sidewalks and dedicated lights), they do.
        I think many of the “scofflaw” cyclists are law-abiding citizens when driving, paying taxes, etc. So my hypothesis is that we must provide laws that make sense and consider the needs of cyclists, and then most cyclists will follow them.

        May 12, 2015 at 6:45 am
      • matthew j

        I don’t disagree traffic laws need to change.
        I just wish in the meantime there could be more camaraderie among fellow cyclists. I expect autos to deny my right of way and am pleasantly surprised when they do not. It is always a disappointment to have a fellow cyclists deny my right of way.

        May 13, 2015 at 5:42 am
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          I don’t think there is much ill will. It seems that many cyclists simply don’t think about the rules and why they exist…

          May 13, 2015 at 5:47 am
  • aztris

    Living in the city, I’d say I generally follow the Idaho stop logic. If it’s clear, I go. If it’s busy, I wait with traffic.
    Only time I’ve had issues with vehicles is when I was flowing then rules and the driver didn’t know them. In one such case I was waiting at a light in the right lane to go straight. The car to my left had no turn signal on. He clearly knew I was there. Light turned green… he turned right.
    I was almost run over. After letting him know my thoughts with a gesture and some words, he yelled that I was in the wrong because the crosswalk light was not green. To which I replied, I’m not walking…

    May 11, 2015 at 1:30 pm
  • Kyle Brooks

    My own policy on lights and stop signs is that if there is anybody who would see if I stopped or not, I stop. As for lights that have a sensor, I will of course stop, but if it’s pretty clear that I’m going to be waiting for someone else to come along to trip the light sensor, then I’ll treat it like a stop sign — that is, I stop, look, and wait for a opening in the cross traffic that will let me get across safely and without being discourteous to others. The way I understand it (and it could vary from state to state) if the light won’t function as it is intended to (as frequently happens to bicyclists and sometimes motorcyclists) then the proper response is to treat it as a malfunctioning light — that is, come to a complete stop, and proceed when it is safe to do so.

    May 11, 2015 at 2:35 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      The rule of what to do with malfunctioning lights depends on the state. When I last checked, WA State law didn’t have a provision for this, only for a malfunctioning light that was flashing red in all directions. That one you do treat as a stop sign, but a light that doesn’t trigger currently is beyond the purview of the law here.

      May 11, 2015 at 2:37 pm
  • Luis Bernhardt

    Few people are aware of this, but LEFT turn on red, from a two-way street onto a one-way street moving left, is legal in British Columbia. Few British Columbians even know this!
    I am probably one of the two cyclists in Vancouver who actually waits at red lights and slows down at stop signs. In BC, the convention (for both cyclists AND motorists) is to just roll thru stop signs if the intersection is empty. (Yes, this is still illegal.) Surprisingly, I have found while riding in California (where I am originally from), that motor vehicles actually come to a complete stop at stop signs there! Cyclists, for the most part, tend to be more law-abiding in Seattle than in Vancouver, although most of the SIR brevets I’ve been on, the usual practice is to just blow stop signs at right turns, which I find somewhat disconcerting, but I have to go along with it if I want to stay with the group.
    One thing I would like to see, though, is a reappraisal of narrow path signage. Narrow paths shared by peds and cyclists usually occur on bridges. Currently, the signs usually say “Cyclists dismount and yield right of way to pedestrians.” Which sounds OK in theory, but is NOT what happens in practice. Usually the cyclist will keep riding and the ped will move over. And I see NO problem with that; it makes perfect sense. The writer above thinks of stopping a bike as a safety issue., I think stopping and DISMOUNTING is one of the more dangerous maneuvers one can make on a bicycle. I know that after a few hours on a bike, I’m sometimes clumsy swinging my leg over the handlebars. And getting back onto the rolling bike often requires the odd swerve to maintain balance, something you don’t want to do on a narrow path. Also, a rider on a bicycle makes a smaller footprint than one walking and pushing a bike alongside. I think these signs should just say “Pedestrians yield right of way to cyclists.” Better yet, bikes and peds shouldn’t be mixing.
    And as far as dogs: If you ever go to a horse racing stable, you are warned to always be sure the trainer is between you and the horse. So the trainer will always walk near a wall, with the horse between the trainer and the wall, so you can walk down the middle of the aisle safely. I would like to see dog owners on paths follow a convention where they walk the dog next to verge (or on the grass) while they walk between the dog and anyone else on the path. This would avoid the issue of the cyclist getting caught on the leash with the dog on one side of the path and the owner on the other. Dog owners tend to be a particularly inconsiderate class of people; they really need common sense conventions to follow…

    May 11, 2015 at 2:46 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I think the assumption is that pedestrians are unpredictable and unlikely to be aware of the rules, so it’s easier and more effective to ask the cyclists to yield to them. After all, pedestrians seek out trails because they want to be away from traffic. As you say, the real solution is not to mix pedestrians and bicycles.
      Trails bring up another issue: the bollards intended to keep drunk drivers from accidentally driving down the trail at night. It seems to me that more cyclists get injured by hitting the posts than would get hurt by drunk drivers who mistake the trail for a road. (Few cyclists use the trail at 2 a.m., when the bars close.) So my solution would be to remove the posts entirely… To achieve this, it will take a cyclist who gets hurt and convinces a jury that the city was grossly negligent by putting posts in the middle of the right-of-way.

      May 11, 2015 at 3:00 pm
    • Andy Stow

      “I know that after a few hours on a bike, I’m sometimes clumsy swinging my leg over the handlebars.”
      What? I have never seen anyone do this.

      May 12, 2015 at 1:25 pm
  • champs794

    Whether they bike or drive, people treat stop signs pretty similarly. We know what it means, but y’know, c’mon. It’s close enough to stopping.
    We also know what a red light means. I readily admit that the rule is occasionally meant to be broken. This is why many states, including Washington, have Dead Red Law. It is the triumph of common sense over blind obedience.
    Waiting for a green light does seem burdensome at times, but this is true for all. I simply cannot follow the logic that only one class of road users may make safe judgment calls. If it works for one, why is it “crazy” for all?
    If never given the chance to make an Idaho Stop, all that is lost are minutes. I ask no less of others on the road when I take my sliver of it.

    May 11, 2015 at 3:31 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      The big difference is that in a car, you travel only short distances on side streets. After a short drive, you usually join an “arterial”, and from then on, you have the right-of-way, and if you are lucky, the lights are timed. So your total wait time at lights and stop signs is small compared to your overall travel time.
      Cyclists often travel for long distances on side streets, facing stop signs and traffic lights at every intersection. Most of these intersections are free of traffic, and waiting adds significant, and needless, time to their ride.
      If the infrastructure was designed for bikes, there probably wouldn’t even be stop signs. Stop signs and traffic lights only were introduced when automobile traffic became dense. Before, city traffic had flowed for centuries with pedestrians, horses, carts and carriages (and, later, bicycles) sharing the streets without the need for much traffic regulation.
      The signs and lights work for the vehicles for which they were designed: cars. For cyclists, not so much…

      May 11, 2015 at 3:48 pm
  • Gunther

    Concerning the “right on green”. The situation can be improved if the pedestrian’s lights turn green a second or two before the lights for the cars do. Then the pedestrians (as well as bicycles on separate bicycle lanes) have a little advance on the road, being more visible and cars less likely trying to pass just in front of them. This seems to become good practice in Germany.

    May 11, 2015 at 4:34 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      That is a good idea… Another idea is to require a stop by the right-turning cars at intersections where pedestrians are likely to be present. This could take the shape of a red flashing right arrow or something that indicates that you cannot simply zoom around the corner.

      May 11, 2015 at 4:40 pm
    • Andy

      This is called a “leading pedestrian interval.” Because many pedestrians are intimidated by entering an intersection (rightfully so) at the same moment that car driver are, the LPI gives them at least a few seconds of safe crossing time to get in view of drivers. It’s not as pedestrian friendly as the all-way stop where pedestrians get full reign of the intersection for ~20 seconds (useful in extremely packed pedestrian areas), but also doesn’t use up as much time stopping cars.

      May 12, 2015 at 7:31 am
  • ORiordan

    What is the situation in areas with “Idaho stop” laws and jaywalking? If cyclists can proceed with caution on a red light then it only seems fair that pedestrians can as well, Or is it the case that jaywalking isn’t really enforced anyway?
    (I’m not familiar with the situation in the US as I’m in the UK where there is no offence of jaywalking. Depending on traffic conditions, it may not be safe or advisable for pedestrians to cross the road on a red, but it isn’t illegal)

    May 11, 2015 at 4:53 pm
  • B. Carfree

    As you noted, most cyclists are already following the Idaho stop law, even where it is not legal to do so. It is indeed time for the law to be adjusted. This is similar to the situation with speed limits. Speed limits are adjusted based on the actual speed of traffic. In my state, the local traffic engineer has to formally justify any speed limit that is set below the 85th percentile speed. This is based on the notion that people will travel at a speed that is safe, so the traffic engineer generally just uses the fatal crash data to confirm the speed limit. (Of course, fender-benders aren’t generally included because they don’t involve police reports and the impact of these excessive speeds on pedestrians and cyclists aren’t usually considered, although they can be.)
    Based on Idaho’s experience, there is no added danger involved in legalizing what is already occurring for cyclists at red lights/stop signs, so the same logic used for the speed of motorists justifies a change.

    May 11, 2015 at 5:00 pm
  • Doohickie

    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.
    A police officer directing traffic is a higher order traffic device than a traffic light. When a cop waives you through the intersection you’re obeying normal traffic law, not “Idaho Stop” law.
    Having said that, I tend to ride Idaho Stop here in Fort Worth. As long as I’m not causing a traffic hazard no one seems to mind (even the occasional cop that happens to come along while I’m doing it). If I do get stopped though, I recognize that a cop can give me a violation.

    May 11, 2015 at 5:46 pm
  • Glenn Ammons

    I’m not sure what this adds to the conversation, except maybe another example of signals that don’t account for cyclists.
    I read this on the train just before I had to close my laptop and get ready to dash from my stop. I have to dash because, leaving the station, there’s a traffic light that won’t detect bikes. The cross street is a major road (think 50 mph traffic with freeway on and off ramps) and the only traffic in my direction is from the train station. If I’m in line with the cars, then it’s fine: I’ll get through on the green triggered by the cars. But if I don’t get my bike unfolded and my butt to that light before all the drivers get into their cars and through the intersection, then I’m stuck at the light until the next train arrives.
    This intersection also has “no pedestrian crossing” signs in all four directions and a bus stop on one corner. This sort of thing is common here in Pennsylvania…

    May 11, 2015 at 8:44 pm
  • bicyclenomad

    Reblogged this on bicyclenomad and commented:
    There’s been a lot of attention in our locale about the interaction of cyclists with car drivers. In Perth the traffic lights all trigger when a car sits over the lane in question. My solution is to use the relevant pedestrian crossing to get the intersection lights to ‘recognise’ me, but I’ll now consider the ‘Idaho’ rule. Bike paths are all very well, but they need to allow cyclists to travel at full speed – so sharing them with pedestrians is way more dangerous to all parties than riding on the road.

    May 12, 2015 at 5:18 am
  • DG

    Bike paths could use some improvement. On the Minute Man Path in MA, the peds walk in the direction of traffic. The Providence, RI trail has peds walk against traffic. The RI arrangement results in better communication w/all trail users and fewer accidents. There are signs & pavement markings communicating the flow posted at regular intervals on both trails. In Boston, peds and bikers do whatever they want. Doesn’t matter if there is a cross walk, walk sign, marked bike lane, or light. During the day this is manageable, but at dusk or night it’s much more hazardous w/unlighted bikes and peds in all black.

    May 12, 2015 at 5:45 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Unfortunately, Seattle’s pedestrians also consider the entire path “shared”, even if there is a white line and ped symbols on one side and cyclist symbols on the other. I think most pedestrians aren’t used to thinking of themselves about traffic other than cars.

      The fear of cars has become so ingrained that most pedestrians think that if they are on a trail with no cars, there is no danger. And most cyclists believe that if they are separated from cars, they are safer – despite the intersection risk on urban cyclepaths.

      May 12, 2015 at 6:49 am
  • Michael

    That would be great to have Idaho stops in Maryland. As far as I know we don’t now. In the meantime:
    1. If a cop sees you proceed on red or roll through a stop sign, can he give you s ticket against your DMV record?
    2.Would Idaho stops make it more difficult for authorities/ insurance companies to determine fault in accidents, since perceiving that I can proceed on red doesn’t mean my judgement call is based in fact.
    On the other hand, I was told by an insurance agent here in Maryland that if a cyclist is hit, the auto driver is always at fault/wrong because cyclists are considered pedestrians here in Maryland. So maybe Idaho is a moot point based on that since the driver is automatically at fault anyway, according to what I was told.
    3. People are saying that cyclists may not understand certain situations at intersections. I’m not sure I agree, since probably they have been driving cars for years through these intersections. Though I will say there felt like a mental adjustment of intersections had to take place when I first started riding as an adult, even though I had been driving for years.

    May 12, 2015 at 7:21 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Regarding fault in accidents with the “Idaho Stop”, it’s obvious: If you proceed through a red light and get hit, it’s your fault – since you didn’t have the right-of-way. The same applies at stop signs. It’s really quite simple.
      As to 1. (does a citation on a bike count against your traffic record), at least in WA State, it doesn’t. I know, years ago, I was cited for an Idaho Stop at a notorious stop sign that had been installed on Mercer Island in an attempt to drive cyclists off the island. It was heavily policed for a while, until the police realized that most cyclists on the island in fact were locals, and rich ones, at that! So they stopped enforcing that stop sign. (It was at the bottom of a hill, and the cross street was the entrance to a park, with good sight lines. Cyclists wanted to maintain momentum, so they rolled through that silly 4-way stop sign. From a traffic perspective, the park entrance should have the stop, but not the road…)

      May 12, 2015 at 7:36 am
  • Michael

    Someone mentioned randonneurs blowing stop signs during events.
    I have seen them doing this in a posted brevet video.
    Isn’t blowing through stop signs grounds for disqualification during an RUSA brevet?

    May 12, 2015 at 7:25 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      We never roll through stop signs during brevets! I am shocked, shocked that this practice seems to occur elsewhere! Perhaps the video was taken in Idaho? 😉
      RUSA rules clearly state that riders have to obey traffic rules, and also behave with respect to local customs and decorum. I am not sure which of the two prevails if they are conflicting – i.e., you are riding in a region where cyclists tend to roll through stop signs, but the law doesn’t allow it. (More seriously, the “local customs and decorum” rule mostly is about behaving and dressing in a civil manner. It could be construed as a prohibition of tight-fitting cycling shorts in some rural locations.)

      May 12, 2015 at 7:40 am
  • Tom Reingold

    I live in Manhattan. Here in NYC, most cyclists do the Idaho stop. If no one is there on the other street, why should I stop for Mr. Nobody?

    May 12, 2015 at 12:15 pm
    • Jon Blum

      Fascinating experiment! Here in Silicon Valley, most controlled intersections feature left-turn lanes and arrows. Proceeding on a red light is very problematic when opposing traffic’s left-turn arrow could turn green, so one has to watch for that as well as cross traffic, even when making a right on red after stop. I run red lights only when there is nobody at all around to see me, which in this busy area is rare before 9 PM. That said, one ill-timed light in my neighborhood is actually safer to run red than green; the green is so short, I am unable to cross the 8-lane street from a standing start before cross traffic gets a green light. So I have to cross when it’s clear, not when it’s green.
      I follow Kyle’s rule with stop signs, and run them only if there is no one around. But it helps to know where certain communities’ police officers hide behind bushes to nab cyclists rolling 4-way stop signs. It’s an odd use of resources when there are drivers running red lights at 45 MPH a few blocks away. Unless they become law, I don’t think the Idaho rules will work well in those towns.

      May 12, 2015 at 8:10 pm
      • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

        The police reports to the city council, so if there are enough complaints about unreasonable enforcement that doesn’t serve any safety purposes, it usually gets called off. (Unless it’s Ferguson, and they make money off it.)

        May 12, 2015 at 8:26 pm
    • Doohickie

      Just follow my mantra (in Haiku form:
      I stop for people
      whose right-of-way I honor
      But not for no one.

      May 12, 2015 at 10:34 pm
  • Andrew Squirrel

    I’ve always thought it would be helpful if more bike blogs and local DOT offices shared info like this for cyclists:
    I’m consistently amazed by how few Seattle cyclists are unaware of the ubiquitous “T” road markings at most of our intersections. You roll your front tire on the T and the inductive sensor should pick up on your bike in most circumstances. I will often roll up to an intersection and see the cyclist off to the side completely unaware they could be helping reduce their wait time.
    I’ve noticed that SDOT is getting better about changing up the symbol. They now use the more universal cyclist symbol with a box above and below the main symbol where you should be placing your wheels for most effective triggering. Disseminating knowledge isn’t quite there yet though
    You should consider writing one up for your blog series!

    May 13, 2015 at 6:13 pm
    • Andrew Squirrel

      This is one of the other links I was planning to share:
      There was also a great PDF released by PDOT that showed all the different shaped loop sensors (round, double rectangle, hexagon, etc) and how to place your bike on them for the most effective triggering. I can’t find it now though.

      May 13, 2015 at 6:22 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      You make a good point – putting your wheel in the right place is a good starting point. It would be nice if there was some feedback that you have triggered the sensors, perhaps a flashing “Light will change” (similar to the “Stop Requested” on the buses, so people don’t keep yanking on the wires) or a little chirp, which could come from the speakers that make the bird sounds for blind people.

      May 13, 2015 at 6:24 pm
      • Andrew Squirrel

        I love the chirping feedback idea!
        I do worry about many of the triggers actually affecting the light cycle in our favor. I know many pedestrian crossing “beg” buttons don’t actually impact how quickly the lights change in the pedestrian’s favor but rather only trigger the white LED walk signal at the appropriate period in the light changing cycle.
        That segues into the entire concept of jaywalking which is very similar to the Idaho stop.
        This audio podcast has a quick history of the origins of jaywalking, really fascinating listen:

        May 13, 2015 at 7:16 pm
  • heather

    I don’t know if you will be able to go back to following the law to the letter. I use the idaho stop to a degree in my rural area, sometimes in the city if it is safe-like no traffic around. I’ve known about the law for a long time and have long used it when appropriate. When appropriate is key. Cyclists being nimble and not taking up much space do have some leeway and the law should be adjusted accordingly.
    What really annoys me are the cyclists who do not follow the law at all. These tend to be fair weather cyclists on those ‘hybrid bike’ things, but put on full cycling gear, panniers etc to ride a few blocks! They ride on the sidewalks in opposite direction of traffic, or even on the bike lanes in the wrong direction. It’s a small town too so they shouldn’t be so afraid of traffic. This only makes things worse because drivers get really confused. But if you do get into an accident riding against traffic and/or on the sidewalk, you will be found at fault or at least partly at fault-at least in British Columbia.

    May 13, 2015 at 7:42 pm
  • Michael

    Earlier there was talk of cycle paths and other bike lane infrastructure.
    My fear is that once a city is festooned with “enough” cycling lanes/paths, then it’s only a short step to outlaw bikes on the streets/car lanes. Then your stuck riding in pedpaths broken by many stop signs at street intersections, or confined to bike lanes in streets that restrict you to dangerous “dooring” zones, or having to hope that the guy about to drive his car across the bike lane so he can get into his right turn lane sees you.
    Cycle advocates are fighting hard for their interests, but I think they have to be careful not to segregate themselves too much or they could be enabling authorities to completely ban bikes from streets.
    Bikes are already banned in my state from all sidewalks,as far as I know, except for two counties, I think. Not that anyone would really want to ride on a sidewalk as they are bumpy and packed with foot traffic, and make for dangerous street crossings. But my point is that authorities can do whatever they want if they decide to. Cycling advocates should carefully consider if their agendas could ultimately backfire on them if they push for too much segregation from riding with traffic.

    May 13, 2015 at 10:59 pm
  • Mike

    I don’t get the fear that better infrastructure might lead to a bad outcome. By what logic is it better to guarantee that we have no safe infrastructure? If people think it’s unsafe to bike, and don’t bike, why do you think they’ll give you the political power to prevent a ban on bikes even without a safe infrastructure alternative? Your best bet to maintain the status quo is to increase the number of people on bikes, and dedicated infrastructure is the only proven way to do that–40 years of muttering about the superiority of VC has been proven not to increase the number of cyclists.

    May 14, 2015 at 5:32 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I think the concern is not that better infrastructure will have a bad outcome. Currently, a lot of bad infrastructure is being built, like the two-way cyclepaths that put riders on the wrong side of the street. New cyclists may feel safe there at first, but as either they or people they know get into accidents on these terribly unsafe paths, they’ll stop cycling. My neighbor did…
      If you want to see what bad infrastructure can do, look at Germany, where for more than half a century, cyclists were banned from riding on the streets if there was a line painted on a bumpy sidewalk that designated a “bike path”. Segregated bike paths originally were created to clear the streets for cars…
      I agree that it’s important to increase the number of people who ride, and it’s a delicate balance. Whether dedicated infrastructure really does cause long-term increases in ridership remains to be seen. Unfortunately, most studies of ridership and accident rates on cyclepaths are so deeply flawed that we have no real data, beyond the fact that ridership has been increasing regardless of infrastructure. All that has been discussed here.

      May 14, 2015 at 5:50 am
      • marmotte27

        “Whether dedicated infrastructure really does cause long-term increases in ridership remains to be seen.”
        What about the Dutch though? The only country that has a complete and coherent grid of cycling infrastructure, and boasts the highest cycling levels anywhere in the world. That’s no coincidence.

        May 14, 2015 at 10:59 pm
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          They also don’t have free parking everywhere. And it’s flat. In my parent’s village in Germany, distances are short, and there are cyclepaths everywhere. Yet 80% of trips are by car. Why? Free parking everywhere…

          May 15, 2015 at 6:51 am
    • Andy

      It can be limiting to some of us too. I often biked on a road that had a wide multi-use path next to it that was recently completed. But the path was mostly used by children near a school, runners, families with strollers or dogs, and novice cyclists that wanted to be off the road. I tried the path a few times, but found that it was really only safe if I was going very slowly. But I enjoy a faster pace, so I stayed on the shoulder of the road, and even though I was mostly out of the way of cars, I still got angry comments from drivers that I needed to be on the path that they paid taxes for.

      May 14, 2015 at 5:57 am
      • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

        That is a common sentiment… and a real danger. If you get hit on the road, try to convince a jury that yes, you had the right to be there, and no, it wasn’t discourteous, and yes, the guy who hit you was fully at fault.
        When accosted by drivers, I now point out that the trail has a speed limit, and that I am not allowed there because I go too fast. It seems that it’s a more convincing argument than most, because if I am going 19 mph in a 25 mph zone, I am not really holding up traffic all that much, and it’s more the principle that annoys the drivers.

        May 14, 2015 at 6:14 am
  • Garth

    I find, at least in my locale of Chicago, that drivers usually not only expect cyclists to roll through 4-way stops, but are annoyed when we don’t. Why? Because the extra time it takes for a bicycle to stop and start not only disrupts the rhythm, but also adds to everyone’s time to cross.
    Another strategy I do, that not only expedites timely crossing of four way stops, but adds to the safety of it is to time my roll-through with a car that is also crossing.
    Another advantage of going through red lights when there is a break in the cross traffic is that it allows you to get ahead of traffic. If traffic catches up to you, they are more respectful because you have established a part of the lane.
    I do notice that in suburban areas with less bikes, motorists are much less familiar with these anarchist mores and expect bicycles to stop just as cars do.

    May 14, 2015 at 1:44 pm
    • Andy

      Or worse yet, the drivers will stop and waive a cyclist through a turn, even though the driver have the right of way. I nearly always insist that they go. My commute used to have a left turn while going up hill, and drivers would frequently try to wave me through. There were so many instances where someone driving down the hill at 30+mph slammed on the brakes because they never expected a car to be stopped in the middle of the road, and luckily I never saw any get hit. If I were to take the turn, I would not only be “at fault” in the eyes of any insurance company, but I’m more likely to be part of the collision had one happened.

      May 14, 2015 at 6:11 pm
  • Brian

    Riding through a red light puts me and every law abiding cyclist in danger, no motorist respects a cyclist for running a red light. When a motorist watches you run that red light he now knows you and every cyclist do this and they have less regard for me and my right to a portion of the road. What is the big issue with waiting for a light to turn green?

    May 14, 2015 at 6:22 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Please note that I didn’t “run” red lights. I came to a full stop, checked for traffic, and if there was none, I proceeded. It was an experiment to see whether the “Idaho Stop” was practicable in a big city like Seattle. If the law changes, do you still think motorists will have less regard for you? Do people have less regard for car drivers because they do a “right on red”?

      May 14, 2015 at 6:32 pm
  • Michael

    I don’t understand bike lanes. I’m already riding on the shoulder. Why give me a three foot extension that hands the governing authorities a reason to ban me from the lane?
    If I can’t ride in the lane, I’m stuck in prime dooring territory.

    May 14, 2015 at 10:05 pm

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