California Capitol Watch: When Is a Stop Sign Not a Stop Sign?

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By Eric Gelber

AB 122 (Horvath) is the latest effort at enacting a bill to authorize bicyclists to treat stop signs as yield signs.

What problem/issue would the bill address?

In response to concerns over clogging the court system with minor traffic offenses, such as cyclists failing to stop at stop signs, the Idaho Legislature, in 1982, enacted legislation to allow all bicyclists to treat stop signs as yield signs. Since then, other states (including Oregon, Minnesota, Arizona, Montana, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Utah, Colorado, and Delaware) have enacted similar laws, allowing some version of what are referred to as “Idaho stops.”

As California continues to work toward the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and cutting other forms of air pollution, encouraging alternative forms of transportation, including bicycling, increases in importance. Bicycle safety is another concern. Evidence suggests that the Idaho stop is safer because allowing bicycle riders to yield at a stop sign helps them maintain momentum and keep better control of the bike and thereby clear the intersection more quickly. AB 122 is intended to address these issues.

What would the bill do?

Current law (Vehicle Code § 22450(a)) provides that: “The driver of any vehicle approaching a stop sign at the entrance to, or within, an intersection shall stop at a limit line, if marked, otherwise before entering the crosswalk on the near side of the intersection. If there is no limit line or crosswalk, the driver shall stop at the entrance to the intersecting roadway.”

AB 122 would add the following exception: “A person riding a bicycle, including an electric bicycle, approaching a stop sign at the entrance to, or within, an intersection shall yield the right-of-way to any vehicles that have stopped at the entrance of the intersection, have entered the intersection, or that are approaching on the intersecting highway close enough to constitute an immediate hazard, and shall continue to yield the right-of-way to those vehicles until reasonably safe to proceed.

Comments

A prior attempt to enact an Idaho stop law in California—AB 1103 (Obernolte 2017)—was referred to but never heard by the Assembly Committee on Transportation after it was pulled by the author in the face of the opposition. As introduced, like AB 122, AB 1103 would have authorized Idaho stops statewide; but, in response to opposition, primarily from insurance providers, AB 1103 was amended to authorize only a pilot program in at least three cities that elect to participate. Nonetheless, the bill was not heard and died in the Committee.

In support of AB 1103, the 2017 bill, the California Bicycle Coalition (Coalition) noted that side streets are often punctuated with stop signs at every intersection, making them less attractive for people bicycling if they are required to stop every block and lose momentum. The Coalition asserted that, notwithstanding current code, riders typically use reasonable judgment when there is not oncoming or crossing traffic at an intersection, and often roll through stop signs on these side streets to maintain their momentum and will yield the right-of-way and come to a full stop if necessary if they encounter other vehicles or people walking or bicycling as they approach the intersection.

While by no means definitive, available data tend to show that bicycle safety improves after implementation of Idaho stop laws. E.g., UC Berkeley, 2010; Depaul University 2016; Delaware State Police 2017.

Some states have extended Idaho stop laws to also permit cyclists to treat red lights as stop signs (or as yield signs on right turns). A 2013 Masters Project found a significant safety improvement with such traffic light controlled intersections, but no differences with stop-as-yield intersections. Nonetheless, the lack of a difference is some additional evidence that Idaho stop laws do not adversely impact the safety of cyclists.

In support of Idaho stop laws, advocates argue that pre-existing law penalizes normal cycling behavior, while the Idaho stop makes cycling easier and safer and properly emphasizes yielding the right of way. In supporting AB 1103, the Coalition concluded that, “penalizing this safe bicycling practice with unnecessary enforcement at stop signs is counterproductive to the larger goal of increasing bicycling, and discourages people bicycling from using side streets if they are required to come to a full stop every block. AB 1103 would make this reasonable practice of treating stop signs as yield signs while bicycling explicitly legal, ensuring that law enforcement do not unfairly penalize this behavior and discourage people from bicycling.”

Other supporters of the 2017 legislation included numerous bicycling advocacy organizations and cycling clubs, including Bike Davis.

Opposition consisted of insurance providers, the League of California Cities, the California Police Chiefs Association, as well as organizations advocating on behalf of children, seniors, and the blind. Insurers argued, for example, that the proposed change in traffic laws is overly broad and would ultimately be detrimental to all road users. They further stated that this disruption would not only be detrimental to safety, it would also insert ambiguity into the very clear liability principles that insurers rely on for assessing fault when an accident occurs. The California Teamsters objected that “[AB 1103] would insert unpredictability into the traffic safety equation, and our members, driving 80,000 pound vehicles, would be left to wonder whether any approaching bicyclist is going to stop or dart out into the intersection.”

AB 122 has been referred to the Assembly Transportation Committee but, as of this writing, has not been set for hearing.

Eric Gelber, now retired, is a 1980 graduate of UC Davis School of Law (King Hall). He has nearly four decades of experience monitoring, analyzing, and crafting legislation through positions as a disability rights attorney, Chief Consultant with the Assembly Human Services Committee, and Legislative Director of the California Department of Developmental Services.


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26 thoughts on “California Capitol Watch: When Is a Stop Sign Not a Stop Sign?”

  1. Todd Edelman

    The City of Davis officially supported the 2017 bill and should do the same with this one. Contact the BTSSC or City Council and ask them to support AB 122.

    Once this is made into law and culturally-established it would be even better to change un-signalized intersections on local streets to priority-only. Sometimes it’s bikes, less often it’s motor vehicles, generally pedestrians get priority. This is what is done in many European cities and it’s best for all modes, IF AND ONLY IF design speeds for the streets where it’s implemented are 20 mph or less. I suggest 15 mph for the USA as it’s already a common temporary limit or design in school zones and certain local streets, also in Davis.

    Safer for all, better flow for all, less emissions. Local streets represent a small portion of every journey by motor vehicle and these will be even faster than now (due to lack of arbitrary stops) or just slightly slower. But there’s a HUGE difference in safety between a vehicle going 25 mph and another going 15 mph. Again, this is at least just for local streets, not collectors.

    I lived for years in cities like this. It works. It can work here.

    Unfortunately right now state law does not allow universal application of 15 mph design speeds on local streets.  When you write the BTSSC, ask them to make sure that one of their new sub-committees focuses on keeping in touch with what’s happening in the legislature, and later this year to propose preparing a pilot for whenever the law is ready for even safer streets for all.

    Get on the California Bicycle Coalition mailing list to stay in touch about AB 122 and check out their legislative watch for other bills that by increasing opportunities for cycling make the streets better for everyone.

  2. Keith Olsen

    15 mph. Again, this is at least just for local streets, not collectors.

    Motor vehicles traveling at 5 or 10 mph would be even safer, right?

    25 mph is safe enough and allows people to get where they need to go at a reasonable speed for the safety of both bikers and drivers.

      1. Keith Olsen

        I guess it all comes down to perception, at 25 mph I feel like I’m crawling.  There has to be a happy medium where safety and people’s ability to get around are both brought into consideration.  25 mph on inner city streets is the right speed for both IMO.

      2. Keith Y Echols

        I think that as is often with rules, laws, ordinances…etc…is that they’re often too much of a one size fits all type of solution….which of course is needed to a degree or else we’d have a bunch of mishmash bundle of rules, laws, ordinances etc…..it’s always a balance between enacting policies that fit certain situations and maintaining a semblance of order with all the policies, rules etc…

        What do I mean by all this and traffic speed?  Yes, 25 mph down most purely residential streets will seem like a car is driving on the autobahn.  But on F street?  Anderson?  Sycamore?  On stretches of those streets 25 mph will seem fine.  EXCEPT on the parts of those streets that go by: Community Park/Little League Fields/14th street, Cesar Chavez and Willett.  Those areas have frequent pedestrians and kids in the area…etc.  Usually those areas have school zones that limit speed in those specific areas.

        Maybe Iowa Stops need to be implemented in areas that do not have frequent cross traffic?  Or maybe implement them on a probationary period and then remove them from the areas that are deemed unsafe or where they’re unwanted.  As far as administration goes?  At the state level let local municipalities determine if Iowa Stops work for them but have the power to remove them if city show and inability at managing them.

    1. Bill Marshall

      I agree with Keith, based on studying traffic engineering, reviewing hundreds of crash reports, hundreds of traffic studies, and 50+years of driving experience (MH), and additional ten riding a bicycle.

      As to the subject of the article, and contrasting with Todd/David’s assertions in the comments, am reminded of a famous quote, “you may go thus far, but no farther…”

      Beware, when I agree with Keith, sure sign of the ‘end of times’… but he has this one correct.

  3. Ron Glick

    What about motorized bikes and skateboards. Yesterday I saw a young man riding a battery powered electric bicycle speed through a stop sign. I have regularly seen kids on motorized skateboards do the same downtown.

    1. Keith Olsen

      I once almost got struck by a female college student blowing through a stop sign on F St and that’s with the current law in place.  I can imagine how the bicyclists will be totally blowing through stop signs when it is no longer a law that they must stop.   If this new proposed law was so safe why would insurance providers, the League of California Cities, the California Police Chiefs Association, as well as organizations advocating on behalf of children, seniors, and the blind all be against it?

      1. Alan Miller

        We (bicycle community) hate those arsehole stop-sign runners too, KO.  This law won’t prevent them from being ticketed.  I do not believe, though arguable, that this is going to make more bicyclists blow stop signs.  There is a self-preservation angle in the majority of people and they aren’t going to start blowing stop signs because slow-look-proceed is legalized.

  4. Tia Will

    I, as always, am in favor of what has been shown to be the safest option for the largest number of people. Since there seem to be different options on what speed level is safe enough, perhaps looking at an aggregation of data from areas in which this has been used safely and at what speed ( including areas, if any, that have abandoned the practice) might be warranted.

    1. David Greenwald

      “Since there seem to be different options on what speed level is safe enough”

      What’s interesting is none have cited the actual data which is pretty clear – the lower the speeds, the less likely a collision between car and other modes and the more likely survival if that does occur.

      1. Alan Miller

        the lower the speeds, the less likely a collision between car and other modes and the more likely survival if that does occur.

        That’s why cars should go zero m.p.h. .  Safer for everyone 😐

        1. David Greenwald

          Like everything there is a happy medium, and Keith Echols rightly points out the difference between driving 25 on a purely residential versus some of the more arterial residential streets.

      2. Dave Hart

        I’ve noticed that 18 mph is a nice speed in a car in residential areas and even some larger streets.  It lets you look around and enjoy the ride.  I’ve also noticed that when I am late or in a hurry, 25mph seems too slow.  The real issue is psychological and the inability of people to override their impatience, lack of planning, anxiety, etc.  Life in a car is much more enjoyable on city streets when we slow down.  Angry, uptight jerks don’t really care what the speed limit is and that includes me. The lower the speed limit, the better for everyone.

  5. Alan Miller

    I am SO for this law.  I have been advocating for this for years, even back decades ago when the non-profit I worked for worked with the California Bicycle Coalition.  This isn’t going to change anything except the law.  The current law is like the old 55mph speed limit – only a few people drove 55mph and they were hazards, everyone else drove highway speeds.  The idiot bicyclists who blow stop signs will continue to do so – they are not only hated by peds and auto drivers, those idiots are hated by most of us who ride bikes too, and they will continue to be able to be fined.  Of course, enforcement is impossible, but at least they still have the potential to be cited.  The rest of us can judge for ourselves when it’s safe to go, like we do today and since the beginning of time.  And as I shared many times here – I once got a ticket blowing 3rd and A Street on a bike.  The cop said “if you had just looked, no cop in this town is going to give you a ticket”.  So since then I always look, and I’ve never got a ticket since.  This law just puts actual safe behavior as the law of the land.  Insurance companies are the bane of society they just use traffic laws and cops to protect them in settlements – so of course they want strict laws so ignore them.  Yay Idaho stop!

  6. Ron Oertel

    I would think that in a city like Davis (e.g., downtown), “officially” allowing bicyclists to blow-through stop signs would be a hazard to pedestrians.

    Anyone who can’t take the time to stop for a stop sign probably shouldn’t be driving or riding any form of wheeled transportation.

    But seriously, is this even enforced, anyway?

    1. Alan Miller

      You didn’t read the article or my comment about ‘blow through’.  Clearly that is still illegal, and blow-through riders are arseholes.  And no, it’s not enforced anyway, unless you are extremely unlucky, and I don’t even think we have a bike cop anymore (I could be wrong, but I haven’t seen one in years).  I don’t like laws that don’t make sense are are ignored by 99% of persons.  Again, blowing through a stop sign is still illegal.

      1. Ron Oertel

        I read your comments, afterward.

        As you noted, blowing-through stop signs is already a problem, now.

        My opinion is that “blow-through” would be loosely interpreted (by police and judges).  And that this represents a danger to pedestrians, primarily.

        I’m not seeing the problem to be solved, except for some scofflaws who are already grossly violating the law.  (Actually, that goes for some drivers, too.)

        If the police were aggressively cracking-down on every bicyclist who coasts through stop signs (when it’s safe to do so), I might have a different opinion.  But, they are not. The mere fact that they “can” be cited likely keeps some behaviors in check (not to mention their own liability, if they fail to stop).

        California is not Idaho – regarding congestion, aggressiveness – some might call it “entitlement”, etc.

        Maybe even more so, in a college town. (Though not on the same level as say, San Francisco.)

  7. Bill Marshall

    and the more likely survival if that does occur., the less likely a collision between car and other modes and the more likely survival if that does occur.

    lower the speeds, the less likely a collision between car and other modes”… patently untrue… crashes happen at intersections, including driveways.  Often at low speeds…

    There are other factors that increase the likelihood of collisions… impairment (drug/alcohol/early senility/other MH factors) than speed… unless you mean “speed” as in meth…

    lower the speeds… the more likely survival if that does occur”.  That is true.  

    But impairment, “stupids”, distractions, and/or criminal behavior cause collisions… not velocity…

    The “professional” (not poli sci) literature confirms this over the last 50 years…

    Equating velocity to collisions is just “smoke”, and others can determine what ‘flavor’…

    Equating velocity/mass to outcomes if there is a collision, is a true story…

  8. Dave Hart

    The Idaho Stop is essentially what everyone does if they don’t think there is a cop around and there is no traffic.  Like most “bad” laws, making common behavior illegal is a sure fire way for the law to be routinely broken.  We normalize law-breaking by making it too easy to break the law.  When people are on bicycles, they are much more aware of traffic and that is why there is literally no need to stop at a stop sign when there is nobody around:  the Idaho stop.  When motorists are present, yes, we need to and should stop at stop signs.  No question, so why make it more complicated than it is?

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