Common Tragedies

Thoughts on Environmental Economics

Innovative public policy from the Mountain West: Example 2

Posted by Danny Morris on August 6, 2009

As an urban cyclist in the District of Columbia, my goals when I’m on my bike are quite simple: stay away from things that can kill you (namely cars) and maintain momentum as much as possible. They are both great ideas in theory, but not so easy to follow in practice, especially when navigating the plethora of stop lights and signs that populate our fair city. That’s why I’m a huge proponent of the Idaho Stop Law. The law, named after the clever state that instituted it in 1982, says that cyclists may treat stop signs as yield signs (they must stop for those w/ the right of way, but can proceed w/o stopping if the coast is clear) and may treat stop lights as stop signs (they must stop, but can proceed when the coast is clear, even if the light is still red). If that doesn’t make total sense, this handy-dandy video made in support of similar legislation in Oregon (which subsequently failed) will help illuminate the situation:

Like I said, i think it’s absolutely brilliant, and it’s what a lot of city cyclists do anyway. But wait, you might be asking, wouldn’t such a law result in more accidents because it would put cyclists in dangerous situations where they could be hit by oncoming traffic? Apparently not. According to the Athlete’s Lawyer (via Greater Greater Washington) reports that the year after the law’s inception, bicycle injuries dropped 14.5%. Isn’t it exciting when public policies make our lives better?

There are a lot of reasons the law makes sense (treats bikes different from cars, allows bikes to maintain momentum and reach top speeds easier, creates separation between bikes and cars going the same direction, etc), but the best reason is because it lets cyclists determine their actions based on their own assessments of their safety. Cyclists are certainly more aware of what they need to do to be safe than drivers and pedestrians, and they are in a position to determine how much time they have to cross an interaction, react to oncoming cars, etc. I don’t know why the law hasn’t been adopted in biking hubs all over the country. Sigh, if only everywhere else were as progressive as Idaho…

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3 Responses to “Innovative public policy from the Mountain West: Example 2”

  1. [...] Morris at Common Tragedies explains and advocates for wider adoption of the Idaho Stop Law: The law, named after the clever state that instituted it in 1982, says that cyclists may treat [...]

  2. Adam said

    Be careful with your hope that “if only everywhere else were as progressive as Idaho…”.
    They’ve generally regressed quite a bit since they had that good idea in 1982.

  3. David said

    It’s interesting that this was adopted as a way of unclogging the courts, not for safety reasons. Which makes sense, because to be honest, I don’t really understand why this is a good idea from a safety perspective.

    Yes, it’s always nice to “maintain momentum as much as possible” on a bicycle. But it’s nice to do that in a car, too, especially if you’re concerned about mileage. So this is just a puzzling answer.

    The matter of staying away from cars is different: that’s usually the excuse I use when I treat a red light as a stop sign. But on balance I am not sure how much of a difference that would make and whether it would outweigh the costs of allowing bicyclists, in practice, to blow through stop signs and decide on their own when it’s safe to scoot through a red. Intersections with stop lights and stop signs aren’t designed for yielding; they are designed for stopping, and then looking.

    As far as the safety improvement, I wouldn’t draw much of anything from the example of Boise. According to Wikipedia, Boise has a population of 202,000, and a density of about 3000 persons per square mile. That’s a third the density of DC and LA, a quarter the density of Boston, and one-ninth the density of New York City as a whole. Amazingly it’s less than 1/20th the density of Manhattan, and that’s only including the resident population, not the several millions who flood in each day to work.

    Basically, it seems like Boise is both empty and wide open. Probably you can see for miles at every intersection, which doesn’t matter because there’s nobody to drive a car anyway. Better-protected bike lanes and boxes at intersections, dedicated bike green lights that go a few seconds before the regular light for cars, and things like that are the answer. Entrusting cyclists in any of the other cities mentioned above with the authority to treat traffic control different than other vehicles is opening up a huge Pandora’s box.

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