Why Chicago Cyclists May Break the Law (To Stay Safe)

Chicago Cyclists and the Laws of the RoadMany bicyclists in the community fail to obey certain traffic laws. These cyclists just continue riding past stop signs, failing to come to a complete stop or will roll through red lights as though there are no oncoming vehicles. While they may appear to be violating the law, the cyclists may be in the right to do so. This is not to say that abandoning common sense is a good idea. But, research is showing that it might be a little safer for bikers to view red lights as stop signs and stop signs as yield signs. Why you ask?

In 1982, Idaho became the first state to permit cyclists the flexibility they need in handling traffic at intersections, which is why this behavior is referred to as an “Idaho stop.” The rule the state put forward is simple. A bicyclist approaching a stop sign can simply slow down at the intersection to look for traffic. The cyclist must only give up their right-of-way if any passenger vehicle, truck, pedestrian or other bicyclist is present or approaching. If no traffic is present, the bicyclist can proceed slowly using the stop sign to yield instead of stop.

Bicyclists in Idaho can handle red lights similarly but need to come to a complete stop before proceeding. If another bicyclist, pedestrian, motorcycle, passenger car, truck or other vehicle is present or approaching, they are given the right-of-way instead. If no traffic is present, the cyclists can cautiously move ahead into the intersection. This change in the law allows the cyclist to view a red light is a stop sign.

These changes in the law in no way allow the cyclist to simply move at full speed through the intersection which could be catastrophic for themselves, another cyclist, pedestrian or others. Other states have adopted a unique version of “Dead Red” laws. These states Include Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Montana, Utah, Arizona, Colorado, Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, Minnesota, Tennessee, Virginia and South Carolina.

How Can This Be Safe?

A physics professor conducted a series of personal tests on Berkeley California streets in 2001 on an official bike route lined with many stop signs. The professor, Joel Fajans, concluded he could maintain a 10.9 mph biking speed without effort. However, when he traveled on a parallel road without a single stop sign, he cut his traveling time by 30%, moving at 4.2 mph using the same exerting energy. The professor determined that any bicyclist who slows down to a speed of 5 mph without stopping can conserve 25% of their energy when ramping back up to full speed.

Research studies have revealed that taking an Idaho stop at an intersection is no more dangerous for the bicyclist and could potentially be safer. Some studies suggest that it is safe because bicyclists have a wider field of vision in when traveling at a slower speed compared to a driver in a moving passenger vehicle or truck. In fact, even the most law-abiding bicyclists spend a majority of their time surveying their surroundings looking to identify oncoming traffic. The habitual scanning and quick decision-making are the hallmarks of a successful bike ride through dense urban environments.

Nationalizing the Law Could Help

Some bicyclists and researchers suggest that widely adopting a legalized version of an Idaho stop could help bikers traveling the streets significantly because drivers could predict what the bike will likely do at an intersection. Currently, passenger vehicles and bicyclists arriving at a four-way stop are usually placed in an awkward situation not knowing who will go first. The start and stop hesitations in providing the car or bike the right-of-way can cause a confusing scenario instead of a smooth transition at the intersection. The law might help increase the predictability of how drivers and bikers share of the road to ensure everyone remained safe.

Originally, traffic lights and stop signs or posted at intersections as a solution for managing traffic, keeping crossroads safe and slowing traffic down in neighborhood residential areas. However, a bicycle operates differently and does not require traffic calming because they do not travel fast enough to require coming to a complete stop. Also, the bike’s lightweight is not heavy enough to activate a change in the traffic light when reaching the intersection because the inductive sensors buried in the road are never tripped.

Many advocates working for a national change in current traffic laws to the Idaho law understand that stop signs were never intended for bicycles, just like they were never designed for pedestrians. As an example, pedestrian never needs to come to a full stop if there is no oncoming traffic at the intersection. This is also true for individuals traveling in electric wheelchairs, on segue riders, skateboards, and in-line skates.

Research studies show that the longer the time it takes for the bicycle to move through the intersection completely, the greater the potential risk of being hit by oncoming traffic. Increase safety because of the law is easy to prove. Since the enactment of changes in the law in Idaho, the state has seen a significant decline in bike-related injuries and death. It is difficult to argue the statistics that prove how the new rule alleviates congested traffic and minimizes the potential of serious harm to those most vulnerable in a catastrophic accident.


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