Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A Better Approach For Illinois Bicyclists: Our Own Private Idaho

Stop sign used in various countries. The shape...Image via Wikipedia

In Illinois, bicyclists are required to stop at all traffic control devices such as stop signs and. . . Oh, why am I bothering? You're not going to do it, are you? As sure as the sun will rise in the east, bicyclists will not come to a complete halt at stop signs and motorists will hate them for it. This tension between bicyclists and motorists is dangerous, especially for those who bike in heavily trafficked urban areas. A pissed-off person behind the wheel of a 2,000 lb rolling chunk of metal is liable to hurt someone. Perhaps if the law changed in Illinois to reflect the way real people actually ride their bicycles, some of the tension between these two groups can be lessened. If the motorist knows that the law permits a bicyclist to merely "slow and go" at stop signs and lights, maybe some of that anger will dissolve. People, after all, tend to resent seeing someone get away with something.

Presently, Illinois law states that, "Every person riding a bicycle upon a highway shall be granted all of the rights and shall be subject to all of the duties applicable to the driver of a vehicle by this Code. . ." 625 ILCS 5/11-1502. Not surprisingly, the Illinois Vehicle Code requires all vehicles to stop at all traffic control devices directing him or her to do so. 625 ILCS 5/11-305. I submit, however, that this law is impractical. Bicyclists are not going to halt at stop signs for two reasons: (1) As anyone who has ridden a bike will attest, momentum is vital. A bicycle is fun because of the freedom of movement it encourages. Gliding along the pavement without doors or walls or a roof, under one's own power is what makes it so enjoyable. Constantly, starting and stopping at every sign and light in the city is just a drag. Why even bother to ride then? (2) Though Illinois law treats bicycles as "vehicles" like cars, buses and garbage trucks, bicyclists do not see themselves that way. Bicyclists see themselves as something between a pedestrian and a "vehicle". Bicycles operating in the city can at times travel nearly as fast as a car. At the same time, bikes are not nearly as heavy as other vehicles. They have a light maneuverability like a pedestrian. What sense does it make for a bike to be required to lumber about like a CTA bus?

For those of you nodding your heads in agreement I have one word for you: Idaho. Since 1982, Idaho law has been unique in what it requires of bicyclists. When approaching a stop sign bicyclists in Idaho may merely slow before proceeding through an intersection if it is safe to do so. Upon approaching a red light a bicyclist must stop, but after doing so may proceed through the intersection once it is safe to do so even if the light remains red. If the cyclist's intent is to turn right at a light controlled intersection, he or she may simply slow and go like at a stop sign. The full statute states as follows:

(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.

(3) A person riding a bicycle shall comply with the provisions of section 49-643, Idaho Code.

(4) A signal of intention to turn right or left shall be given during not less than the last one hundred (100) feet traveled by the bicycle before turning, provided that a signal by hand and arm need not be given if the hand is needed in the control or operation of the bicycle.

This statute makes good sense. It does not allow bicyclists to simply ignore traffic control devices. They must look for traffic and yield the right-of-way to vehicles in or close to the intersection. It recognizes the reality that bicyclists are hybrid travelers, not quite vehicles and not quite pedestrians. It also codifies what cyclists do anyway. By making this practice legal, everyone on the road can proceed happier. Bikers can proceed with the confidence that by exercising this slow and go approach they are complying with the law. Motorists will be put on notice that bikes may not stop at controlled intersections. Maybe bicyclists will be no longer be viewed by motorists as outlaws on city streets, thumbing their noses at laws they themselves are required to obey. Maybe changing the law will help foster mutual respect between cyclists and drivers. Fingers crossed.

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  1. I believe Portland, OR is similarly enlightened. Wonder if more people would commute/run errands by bike if these laws were reasonably accommodating for bicyclists.

    I run a lot of errands by bike, including grocery shopping. There are about a dozen stop-signed intersections between the store and my home, most of which are designed (IMHO) to placate nervous homeowners, and not to serve any meaningful accident reduction.

    Hey, it's *hard* to get up to speed with 25 lbs of groceries in the pannier bags. It's silly to be required to come to a complete stop when there are no cars in the vicinity.

    Wonder if the Active Transportation Alliance would take this up with hizzoner da mare?

  2. Actually, Portland attempted to enact the "Idaho Stop" in April, but it failed to pass. You can read more about it here:



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