Rolling Through Stop Signs

By Beacon Staff

I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard a complaint about cyclists not stopping at stop signs. I’d have enough money to buy at least one new bicycle, maybe two or three.

And now one Montana lawmaker would like to make this normal behavior legal, just as it has been for 27 years in Idaho.

Robin Hamilton (D-Missoula) has sponsored HB 68, which is currently under consideration by the Montana Legislature, to be like Idaho and allow cyclists to treat stop signs like yield signs. I suspect this idea might give some motorists and police officers – at least those who don’t ride their bicycles – heartburn or worse. Before giving in to a knee-jerk reaction, consider this.

Commuting on a bicycle isn’t easy, which is why most people don’t do it, of course. Yet, for many reasons such as promoting preventive health care, saving fossil fuels, and addressing municipal parking and traffic issues, we should encourage bicycle commuting.

Residential neighborhoods, where city officials often designate “bicycle routes” are often awash with stop signs. The idea is to keep bicycles off high-traffic thoroughfares, which may or may not be a good idea, but the plethora of stop signs means cyclists must continually unclip and put a foot down instead of keeping some of their hard-earned momentum – or technically violate the law by not coming to a full stop.

Most experienced cyclists always put safety first. In no circumstance is a cyclist going to ride through any stop sign at high speed without making absolutely sure it’s safe. Most cyclists risk getting traffic violations by slowing to a “reasonable speed,” checking for oncoming traffic and not seeing any, rolling through a residential intersection. Seeing traffic, they make a dead stop and yield to the motorist or other cyclist. This common and technically illegal behavior is usually restricted to residential intersections, not intersections with main streets with heavy traffic or stoplights. All cyclists must make complete stops when entering high-traffic streets and at all stoplights.

Stop signs on residential routes make cycling so difficult that I usually take the high-traffic, through streets across town. Experienced cyclists take through streets for the same reason motorists take through streets. Cyclists not only get to their destination in half the time, but to me, it seems safer and easier.

The concept of the bill is “counter intuitive” to police officers, Hamilton admitted in a phone interview, “but it only makes customary cycling behavior legal. We’ve had a laboratory next door called Idaho for many years, and the law hasn’t caused any increase in accidents or fines.”

Hamilton told me about a conversation he had with the Missoula Police Chief who was concerned about the bill. He asked the chief to call his peers in Idaho cities, which he did, and then came back to Hamilton and agreed “it hasn’t been an issue” in the Gem State.

Nor would it be in Montana and other states.

I only wish police officers and lawmakers would have a little confidence that adult, experienced cyclists always put safety first because when on the roads they know who is the windshield and who is the bug.

I called Idaho’s bicycle and pedestrian coordinator Mark McNeese about Idaho’s law and he confirmed what Hamilton said. Idaho has had this law on the books since 1982, and according to McNeese, it has never been controversial nor have there been any attempts to change or overturn it. It has not caused any increase in bicycle-related accidents, nor does Idaho have a higher rate of bicycle accidents than other states.

Other states like California and Virgina are studying Idaho’s law, as are cities like Minneapolis and Portland, McNeese said, but “Nobody else has been able to get it passed, and I don’t know why.”

Idaho has recently gone a step further, McNeese noted, by passing a companion law that allows cyclists to stop at a red light and then proceed through it if there’s no oncoming traffic.

I asked Hamilton about the prospects for his bill, and he said, ” I think it’s going to die. The cycling community didn’t show up at the hearing to support it.”

Huh? Here we have a conscientious lawmaker trying to make a progressive move for bicycle commuters and not even one shows up to support the bill. How bad is that?

Fortunately, there’s still time to make a difference. Run to your computer and dash off an e-mail to members of the House Transportation Committee, especially to your local rep if he or she is on that committee. You can find the full text of HB 68 and a list of representatives and email addresses at leg.mt.gov.

If we cyclists don’t show up to support such efforts to improve what are outdated state laws related to cycling, do we deserve help?

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