Whenever I write about cyclists sharing the road with motorized traffic, I inevitably receive comments or emails about a blatant lack of respect for the law by cyclists. Riders are, after all, considered traffic and subject to the same laws as motorists. This includes stopping at both stop signs and stop lights; often cited by critics of absconding cyclists as one of the laws most frequently abused.
Let’s be honest: Anyone that bikes with regularity in an urban area has rolled through a controlled stop. Why completely break your momentum at a four-way stop sign when it is evident there are no other conveyances in or approaching the intersection?
Some cycling advocates argue that allowing riders to go through stops actually leads to safer roads for all. Such a law was adopted in Idaho more than 30 years ago. Also, just last summer Paris began allowing wheelers to go through red lights, under certain conditions, at nearly 2,000 intersections throughout the city.
The Idaho stop law allows cyclists to go through stop signs, after slowing to a reasonable speed and ensuring there is no “immediate hazard during the time the person is moving across or within the intersection.” Cyclists must yield the right of way to any vehicle in, or approaching, the intersection.
The law in the potato state also allows cyclists to proceed through red lights, but only after coming to a complete stop and ensuring the intersection is safe to enter.
A couple of recent studies have found that the law in Idaho has reduced the number and severity of crashes involving cyclists. However, critics argue that the law makes bikers less predictable and, thus, less safe.
Kurt Holzer, a cyclist and well-respected Idaho personal injury attorney says the law makes sense for other reasons beyond the documented safety benefits. Cyclists often cannot trigger sensors under the street, he writes, and the law “encourages people to choose this eco-friendly method of transportation,” by making it easier and more efficient.
In 2009, Minnesota Representatives Phyllis Kahn and Linda Slocum introduced a bill that would have changed the Minnesota law to mirror that in Idaho. The bill never went anywhere.
The following year a watered down version was signed into law, allowing a cyclist to proceed through a red light if it is malfunctioning or “continues to show a red light for an unreasonable time.” The definition of an “unreasonable amount of time” is certainly open to interpretation but the intent of the law is to allow cyclists to proceed through red lights controlled by sensors which they cannot trigger, without risk of a ticket.
A look at the data suggests that cyclists either rarely disobey stop signs and traffic lights, or that police aren’t enforcing these laws. In all of 2015, Minneapolis police only issued two citations to cyclists for failure to obey either a traffic sign or a traffic light. Only 10 such citations were issued in all of Hennepin County last year.
This begs the question: If changing the stop law for cyclists reduces crashes and injuries, and police aren’t enforcing the law as it stands, doesn’t it just make sense to change the laws to reflect the realities of a bicycle-friendly city and state? Or is this a slippery slope towards giving cyclists, who don’t pay for roads through a gas-tax equivalent, carte blanche to ride how they see fit, putting others in danger?
Regardless, a change in Minnesota law is unlikely during this year’s short legislative session, as there is currently no lobbying effort seeking to change the law. The Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota, a strong bicycle advocacy group, has no position on the stop law and is not pursuing any related changes at the Legislature. But, similar provisions are being considered at increasing rates around the country and may soon make their way to Minneapolis or the state legislature.