That’s An Odd Blog Post Title
Yes it is. My original title was stop, yield, ignore. I went looking for
synonyms different words using a thesaurus. I often find this useful because all too often we (or at least I) have a narrow understanding of what words really mean. This is especially true when using words in specific contexts. For example, the word stop. In the context of this blog post–stop signs and red lights–that word evokes a certain meaning. In an attempt to get you to think more broadly and with more openness, think pause when you read stop. Similarly, think defer when you read yield. I threw the ignore-omit combination in there because there is danger in that response to traffic controls. That and it seems that many users of the roads already selectively omit/ignore, often unconsciously.
But be cautious, arguing that stop really just means pause before a judge might get you a few laughs but it won’t override the very specific meaning of the word stop in the traffic code.
Idaho Stops and Paris Reds
What brings this topic up again? Unfortunately, a Facebook exchange. One of my “friends” posted about Paris experimenting with allowing cyclists to cross on red lights. This devolved into emotional pleas by some for adopting the Idaho-stop rule and then a silly discussion about accident statistics.
The “conversation” ended with me cautioning people about the use of traffic mishap data and then quietly reminding them of the true origin of the Idaho-stop rule:
had been approached by magistrates with complaints that law enforcement was ticketing cyclists for failure to come to a complete, foot-down stop. Magistrates considered these technical violations to be functional and common cycling behavior, but under the law, they had no option but to fine cyclists for these violations. Bianchi and the magistrates who were bringing these concerns to him felt that these “technical violations” were unnecessarily cluttering the courts.
(and before we proceed further, I will remind my Texas readers that the vehicle code does NOT require a foot down at a stop. This contrary to the urban-myth I keep hearing way too many cyclists spout. Can’t speak for other states.)
First A Confession
Yes, I have violated the law. There are times when I have not executed a textbook stop at a stop sign and I have crossed against a red light. These acts of rebellion are very rare and under very limited conditions. For example, at 11:30 at night the 4-way stop at Justin/Grover. Or when a stop light cycles through without giving me a green and there is absolutely no traffic. The later using the tenuous legal doctrine that the signal is malfunctioning that I am allowed to treat it as a stop sign or flashing red light. And then there is the isolated stop sign out in the middle of nowhere on my country sojourns.
If there is any hint of traffic I happily comply with the letter of the law.
For Or Against?
Generally against adoption of Idaho-stop and cyclist may cross red light. I know you’re shocked. I’m not in favor of these partially because I don’t like the idea of further differentiating the bicycle. But I’m mostly against because of the arguments that some people use to advocate for the rules.
- Balance. I love this one. Highly entertaining. Some cyclists, oblivious to physics, claim that a bicycle is more stable at speed. This one is often backed up by invoking the gyroscopic effect of turning wheels. While that effect is present, it is trivial and irrelevant to the actual reason that bicycles stay upright. It just seems to be easier to balance at speed, because the steering corrections are more subtle.
- Conservation of energy. More entertainment. This one at least has its foundation on solid physical concepts. But I’ve heard this used to explain why more people don’t cycle. Somehow the act of accelerating back to speed after stops is so rigorous that only the most fit cyclist can survive. Pure horse fertilizer. The fitness level required for most urban cycling is just not that steep a hill to climb (pun intended). And given the urban environment, even if the rules were in place, a cyclist would be required to stop numerous times anyway. Besides, the herculean effort required to start a bike at least has the benefit of toning muscle, strengthening the heart, etc.
- It’s just as safe. Maybe. Maybe not. I often hear people tell me that it’s justifiable because the accident rate in Idaho didn’t go up. Again maybe and maybe not. I’ve never seen the numbers or the underlying data. I would urge caution in using aggregations and statistical summaries. I don’t believe that traffic accident investigations are rigorous enough to inform those kind of systems safety like risk decisions. In the final analysis it comes down to each individual act. Statistics don’t provide protection when you’re deciding whether to stop at a particular stop sign.
- The bicycle is better. Again differentiation. In many ways the bicycle is better. Certainly it has less impact on the environment (note I didn’t say no impact). It is more healthful. It is often more convenient and quicker than other modes of travel. But are we really willing to spend the political capital and good will to discriminate use of public roadways?
Conscious Act or Habit?
My final caution is rooted in the concept of mindfulness. I can remember a time when drivers were not allowed to turn right on red. As we have adopted that rule it has slowly morphed from privilege into entitlement. So much so that when you chide a motorist for violating right-of-way during a right on red, they get defensive (often violently). The same goes for stop signs. It has become habit to roll through stop signs, especially on right turns. Note I said habit. Not a conscious act, deliberating weighing all factors. Go to any intersection. Watch the motorists carefully. Yes, some are reasonable acts of risk acceptance. But all too often the turns and rolling stops are habitual acts, relying on the law of large numbers and luck.
There is an old saying in training: practice makes perfect. That is an incomplete statement. In reality practice makes permanent. This was the caution I expressed during a workshop at last year’s Austin Bike Summit. A person that I respect opined that it was insulting to be told by engineers and safety experts that stop signs were necessary. He said that no rational person puts themselves into harms way simply because of convenience. While that is true I had to counter that by making sure that people were in fact making a conscious, informed decision.
Again go to any intersection on a route well-traveled by cyclists. Watch how they proceed through stops. Is it really a conscious act? Is it an unambiguously safe act as viewed by other users of the road?
Don’t Add to the Confusion
I’ll close with a little levity and a plea. Negotiating 4-way stops is already frustrating enough. I can’t tell you the amount of time I’ve wasted waiting for a flummoxed motorist who can’t remember the simple rules of a 4-way stop. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had to wave a motorist through an intersection even after clearly communicating that I was acknowledging their right-of-way by putting my foot on the ground. The reverse is also true. I’ve had near misses with confused drivers who fail to recognize my right-of-way.
Don’t add to the confusion and the decision flow chart by allowing cyclists to roll through stop signs.