There's a good reason cyclists want to conserve momentum, particularly when there are no other vehicles around.
By Adrian Duyzer
Published November 16, 2011
On November 7, the Cycling Committee of the City of Hamilton submitted recommendations to the Public Works Department for changes to Ontario's traffic legislation. They wanted these recommendations to be detailed in a letter and sent to the Ontario Ministry of Transportation (MTO).
One of the recommendations was to develop legislation "to permit an 'Idaho stop' style traffic control for cyclists". An 'Idaho stop' is so-called because of a 1982 law passed in Idaho that permits, in essence, cyclists to treat stop signs like yield signs.
This recommendation was rejected by Public Works and subsequently panned in the media. "Let’s face it, with or without an Idaho stop-style law, blowing through stop signs with nothing more than a quick precautionary glance is already standard behaviour for most cyclists," wrote Andrew Dreschel in a Spectator column.
Or take Scott Thompson's column a day later (it doesn't appear to be online). Citing an "ongoing battle between cyclist and motor vehicle," Thompson wrote it is an "illusion to think bike lanes alone will work without enforcement of laws, licensing and possibly insurance" - conveniently ignoring an entire continent, Europe, which is home to 100 million unlicensed, uninsured cyclists.
Addressing the Idaho stop proposal specifically, Thompson wrote it meant that "if the intersection is clear of vehicles, no need to stop, just blow on through." But what, exactly, is an Idaho stop? Is it true it lets you just "blow through" stop signs?
The law in question is Idaho Statutes Title 49, Chapter 7, Section 720, and the relevant parts are the first two:
49-720. STOPPING -- TURN AND STOP SIGNALS. (1) A person operating a bicycle or human-powered vehicle approaching a stop sign shall slow down and, if required for safety, stop before entering the intersection. After slowing to a reasonable speed or stopping, the person shall yield the right-of-way to any vehicle in the intersection or approaching on another highway so closely as to constitute an immediate hazard during the time the person is moving across or within the intersection or junction of highways, except that a person after slowing to a reasonable speed and yielding the right-of-way if required, may cautiously make a turn or proceed through the intersection without stopping.
(2) A person operating a bicycle or human-powered vehicle approaching a steady red traffic control light shall stop before entering the intersection and shall yield to all other traffic. Once the person has yielded, he may proceed through the steady red light with caution. Provided however, that a person after slowing to a reasonable speed and yielding the right-of-way if required, may cautiously make a right-hand turn. A left-hand turn onto a one-way highway may be made on a red light after stopping and yielding to other traffic.
Note that this does not say cyclists can "blow through stop signs", i.e. travel through them quickly and recklessly. The law actually says that cyclists must slow down to a reasonable speed and, if required for safety, stop when they come to a stop sign.
In an interesting balancing act, the law also mandates that cyclists "shall yield the right-of-way to any vehicle in the intersection or approaching on another highway". If I'm reading that correctly, that means that after slowing down and exercising appropriate caution, if there is another vehicle at the intersection the cyclist must stop and yield the right-of-way to that vehicle.
But why do cyclists dislike stop signs in the first place? An excellent article entitled Why Bicyclists Hate Stop Signs explains (note: I have converted imperial measurements to metric):
Bicyclists can work only so hard. The average commuting rider is unlikely to produce more than 100 watts of propulsion power, or about what it takes to power a reading lamp. At 100 watts, the average cyclist can travel about 20 km/h on the level. When necessary, a serious cyclist can generate far more power than that (up to perhaps 500 watts for a racing cyclist, equivalent to the amount used by a stove burner on low). But even if a commuter cyclist could produce more than a 100 watts, she is unlikely to do so because this would force her to sweat heavily, which is a problem for any cyclist without a place to shower at work.
With only 100 watts' worth (compared to 100,000 watts generated by a 150-horsepower car engine), bicyclists must husband their power. Accelerating from stops is strenuous, particularly since most cyclists feel a compulsion to regain their former speed quickly. They also have to pedal hard to get the bike moving forward fast enough to avoid falling down while rapidly upshifting to get back up to speed.
For example, on a street with a stop sign every 90 meters, calculations predict that the average speed of a 150-pound (68 kg) rider putting out 100 watts of power will diminish by about forty percent. If the bicyclist wants to maintain her average speed of 20 km/h while still coming to a complete stop at each sign, she has to increase her output power to almost 500 watts. This is well beyond the ability of all but the most fit cyclists.
The article goes on to describe how car commuters tend to avoid residential streets with many stop signs, preferring thoroughfares with signalized intersections instead. The absence of cars on these residential streets thus makes them prime choices for designated bike routes, but because of the physical factors just described, cyclists don't like those streets either.
That is, they don't like them unless they can roll through stop signs. A cyclist who rolls through a stop sign at 8 km/h needs 25 percent less energy to return to a speed of 16 km/h than one who comes to a complete stop. Nor is this behaviour unsafe: cyclists have much better awareness of their surroundings than drivers, and it is easy for them to come to a quick stop if they must.
So there are sensible reasons why many cyclists treat stop signs with less than total respect. This apparently enrages drivers (at least, the ones who don't also cycle), which is rather hypocritical, since drivers don't obey stop signs either.
Park a lawn chair at any residential intersection and watch the cars go by, and you'll notice the majority don't come to a full stop. Each day I cycle to and from work I witness a multitude of traffic infractions: cars parked in the no-stopping zone by my son's school; cars parked in the bike lanes on Dundurn; and hundreds of drivers streaming by on Main Street in excess of the posted speed limit.
This is such common knowledge that two days after his article about cyclists "blowing through" stop signs, Dreschel followed up with a nice piece entitled Motorists are just as bad as cyclists.
He's right about that, and we all know it. That said, consider that each year in Hamilton about a dozen pedestrians are killed by drivers, not cyclists. That's partly simple physics (cars are heaver and travel faster), but it's also because we design our streets for cars, not cyclists or pedestrians.
Drivers who claim an Idaho stop law would be special treatment for cyclists can hardly escape the fact they have an entire road network built for them, with cyclists as an afterthought.
But instead of pointing out each others' faults, we could take a reasonable approach and decide that if most citizens disobey a law and no appreciable harm results, it's time to reconsider it.
As we've seen, there's a good reason cyclists want to conserve momentum, particularly when there are no other vehicles around. It's not easy muscling 200 pounds of flesh and steel down the road. But the benefits are substantial: decreased carbon emissions, less traffic congestion, and citizens who are healthier and live longer, saving all of us thousands in health care costs.
So why not cut cyclists a break and adopt innovative legislation that has proven to be effective, and safe, in other regions?