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The Idaho Law: allowing safer choice and happier travel

September 29, 2011

The IDAHO LAW: legendary in U.S. cycling circles. The 1982 “Idaho Law”, I.C. §49-720, allows bicyclists to slow and safely choose whether to yield to stop signs and red lights. (Since 2005, cyclists must stop before proceeding straight through a red light, but may still yield on right turns.)

How did just one state achieve such a progressive approach to bicyclists and traffic controls? Great topic, important topic; its importance for active transport is not to be underestimated!

I was involved in a study of the Idaho Stops law at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health.

This included visiting Idaho, numerous interviews with key stakeholders, a survey, and video data collection, as well as comparing city traffic safety data with other cities.

There was absolutely no indication that the Idaho Law had caused any harm.

Boise was compared with the very similar Sacramento, and found to be much safer (62-76% safer for commuters, with no fatalities). Boise has the Idaho Law, Sacramento doesn't.

Boise was compared with the very similar Sacramento, and found to be much safer. Boise has the Idaho Law, Sacramento doesn’t.

The most substantial piece of that study was a comparison with Sacramento, a city which is surprisingly similar in many ways.

Sacramento appeared to be much more dangerous for cyclists than Idaho by all comparisons, with at least 30% (or 60%, depending on definitions of injury) more injuries per bicycle commuter, and regular fatalities each year, whereas Boise had NONE, year after year.

This surprising difference year after year, from such similar cities, certainly dispels any “sky will fall” assumptions about the Idaho Law and lends strength to the supported hypothesis that the Idaho Law actually improves safety for all roadway users, and increases cycling. Other cities were also compared, and like Sacramento, all fared worse than Boise.

In fact, quite a list of apparently attributable benefits for the Idaho Law were found. Increasing cycling, increasing cycling safety, increasing safety for all roadway users, and reducing the risk of injury including repetitive strain injuries, were among the benefits. One of the largest benefits of all is political; across the USA political opposition to bicycling is vehement, even violent in many cases many of you have heard of, in attempting to control and contain cycling for “flouting” the law. But whenever a law has such near universal non-compliance, by everyone from grandmothers to police officers, and especially grandmothers who are police officers, we owe it to all to revisit the law.

The assumption that bicyclists follow all laws intended for motor vehicle users is highly flawed. No “warrants” (e.g., informed criteria) for cyclists to be held to stop signs and signals were developed in that broad sweeping legal measure (adopted by many states 50+ years ago, after the bicycle had been prominent in ground transport for about as many years without such control). Bear in mind that stop signs and signals would not exist as they do today, but for the motor vehicle.

In fact, many stop signs and even many signals are what traffic engineering would call “unwarranted” for motor vehicles; they are used solely for traffic calming. Ironically, this occurs intensively on what many if not most consider the ideal cycling routes, quieter streets parallel to arterials (e.g., bicycle boulevards). Thus to stop cars from using residential cycle routes, we’ve en masse hurt cycling on those very routes. Adding stop signs can more than double a cyclist’s time spent, and more than triple the energy spent. No fun. It discourages cycling. Add to that the evidence that stop signs actually increase injuries, and the call for relaxing stops for cycling seems imperative.

We don’t require walkers, runners, push-scooter operators, skateboarders, inline skaters, or electric wheelchair users to stop, yet those modes are as a strong general rule, much less able to avoid collisions…If we don’t require those active transport modes to stop, why would we ever require bicyclists to do so?

We don’t require walkers, runners, push-scooter operators, skateboarders, inline skaters, or electric wheelchair users to stop, yet those modes are as a strong general rule, much less able to avoid collisions. In general their operation has a longer stopping distance and a larger turning radius, and a reduced ability to see and hear. If we don’t require those active transport modes to stop, why would we ever require bicyclists to do so?

A major distinction must be made between choosing when to yield for safety, and taking right of way over all other users. There is no reason to believe that the Idaho Law increases disrespect for pedestrians, which is best addressed by other means than a mismatched stopping law. If anything, proper respect for bicyclists (including proper education and training) will help reduce conflicts and create a friendlier culture of inclusion. The Idaho Law allows prosecution of any cyclist who violates the right of way of not only a pedestrian, but other cyclists and motorists as well.

I’m happy to provide the draft study and a policy document based on the study, and certainly welcome any help in completing and publishing the study. An earlier version of the paper is available here: IDAHO-LAW-jasonmeggs-2010version.

Perhaps the most informative for a quick look is an even earlier presentation, available here: idaho-presentation.

Presently I have an outstanding request for more data to the Idaho OHS, and a multi-city follow-up survey in the works. Your Agent Meggs has been asked to provide testimony to a number of states and cities considering adoption of their own long overdue version of this important, inexpensive, and broadly beneficial measure. In recent years numerous places in the U.S. have considered, and in some cases even introduced legislation, to adopt an Idaho Law, including Oregon, Arizona, Virginia, California, and Washington, D.C.

An example policy letter to share with decision makers can be found for download here: idaho-letter-jmeggs-20090627. I’m happy to also write a short letter introducing the latest version of my study, such as this one, available for download here. In addition to written testimony, I can be available for in-person oral testimony in support of legislation.

In the meanwhile, you may enjoy this very clear and helpful video from Oregon:

Bicycles, Rolling Stops, and the Idaho Stop from Spencer Boomhower on Vimeo.

UPDATE FEBRUARY 2012:
There’s a new legal situation for cyclists in France, with a test rolling out in Paris. Despite a lot of confusion on the topic, Paris militants à vélo, Mieux se Déplacer à Bicyclette (MDB), assure me this article is “not totally false”:
http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/public/cyclesafety/article3311182.ece

and that “this possibility is not only for Parisian cyclists, it is a nationwide law. For instance, in Nantes, the experimentation started one year ago without problem so it as be decided to make more” as discussed here: href=”http://www.bicloo.nantesmetropole.fr/Magazine/Actualites/Le-tourne-a-droite-des-velos-generalise

And quite a perspective and discussion on the topic at the emphatically energetic On the Level Blog.

UPDATE NOVEMBER 2012:
As a result of attending Velo-city Global in Vancouver, where Meggs gave a presentation on the Idaho Law, a number of promising things happened including:

a) Meggs was invited to present to Members of Parliament in Stockholm, Sweden. This was important because Sweden is considering new rules for counter-flow riding, and whether to allow yielding. Meggs also presented to a group of urban transport planners in Gothenburg. A forthcoming article with more details is planned, and an article about the Stockholm presentation was published (in Swedish).

b) In Vancouver, the HUB advocacy group, elected to support Stops as Yields, as detailed in the following public statement

c) Contacts in France were made, discussions were undertaken and documentation of the research process and results leading to relaxing stopping rules for cyclists facing red lights in France was received.

d) A news article was published.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Rolling Right Along permalink
    November 19, 2013 6:09 pm

    A nice article on this topic which mentions Meggs’ work:
    http://www.bicycletimesmag.com/node/80229

  2. The Doctor permalink
    March 3, 2014 12:29 pm

    Ahh good old cyclists, demanding to be treated like a car with the same rights, then demanding special treatment.

    • March 3, 2014 8:13 pm

      Dear “Doctor”,
      You are right that there are divergent factions in the organized realms of bicycling, although they’re less divergent in whole and in practice than you may think. In past debates with representatives of the “Vehicular Cyclists” credo, the belief in allowing yielding was so strong that the result was a position that we (as a society) allow more yields for both cyclists and motorists. There’s certainly some support for this, for many of the same reasons. In practice many motorists don’t come to a full stop either, by the way, and statistically it appears they are less likely to be involved in a collision than those who do stop.
      However, it must be asked, is this touch of irony masking a bias against bicycling, and bicyclists, in general? The framing of the issue is a bit inflammatory and misses the mark; the goal at this blog at least is to assess the reality of the situation (both broadly and closely) and find solutions that have the largest net positive effect without hurting anyone. Do you have a problem with that? Do you disagree that this analysis does that? A substantive reply would be much more interesting and appreciated.

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