As an attorney who represents cyclists, a question persists: Are Illinois traffic statutes (and some of the country’s, for that matter) unduly bad for riders and for drivers?
About a month ago the Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development at DePaul University released a study that argued in favor of relaxing state mandates by, somewhat ironically, considering a law that was passed in 1982 by the Idaho state legislature called the “Idaho Stop.” The law essentially allows cyclists to treat stop signs as yield signs and red lights as stop signs.
Problem is the Idaho Stop is as controversial for lawmakers as it is obscure for the general public. Several states have tried to adopt it to no avail, and the skeptics in Illinois point out that introducing a law like the Idaho Stop in places like Chicago would simply validate every conceivable bad habit that motorists loathe about cyclists — on top of the fact that comparing traffic in Chicago to Idaho is like comparing apples to oranges.
“What works in downtown Boise,” wrote the Chicago Tribune’s Editorial Board shortly after the Chaddick study was released “isn’t what works in the traffic-choked Loop.”
The board continued: “We all know cyclists who breeze through uncongested intersections because … they can. But traffic laws are designed to inject a sense of what everyone must do at intersections and other choke points — not what they wish to do.”
It’s a valid point, but one that’s missing the big picture.
Why the Idaho Stop?
The Idaho Stop was designed to “align policy with the fact that many cyclists seek to maintain their energy and momentum at intersections without compromising safety,” according to the authors of the Chaddick study.
Here in Chicago just one in 25 cyclists make a complete stop when there’s no oncoming traffic, and hardly any offenders face any sort of traffic citation when they do. The authors at DePaul also concluded that a significant percentage of cyclists consider it a “negative physical experience to have their momentum interrupted by a stop sign or red traffic signal,” none of which is due to laziness.
For anyone who has ever ridden a bike, you know there are practical reasons for maintaining your momentum. One of the more interesting takeaways from the research collected at DePaul was the notion that “women are more vulnerable to truck collisions due to their tendency to be less likely to disobey red traffic signals than men,” a theory that was originally proposed by The Transport for London, saying that men avoided getting caught in a truck driver’s blind spot by deciding to judge traffic for themselves.
Thinking about it from the perspective of Idaho state legislators back in the ’80s: If cyclists are going to ignore traffic signals, anyway, shouldn’t we consider changing our objectives?
Promoting a state of mind
As it pertains to the law, proponents of the Idaho Stop base their logic on relatively simple principles, and even more so, on the statistics. Several states have lobbied to adopt the Idaho Stop, including Colorado and Oregon, always with numbers at their disposal and a goal to change conventional thinking.
“Cities with high biking rates tend to have a lower risk of fatal crashes for all road users,” continues the Chaddick study. “This benefit is likely due to the ‘safety in numbers’ phenomenon, the idea that drivers adjust their behavior in accordance with the perceived probability of encountering a bicyclist.”
And here we arrive at the crux of how the Idaho Stop works: by promoting a state of mind. The “safety in numbers” phenomenon is yet another controversial but obscure philosophy that, put in context, is a philosophy reinforced by facts.
In 2008, Jason Meggs, a member of UC Berkeley’s Environmental Health Science Division, contacted Idaho’s Office of Highway and Traffic Safety to analyze a years-worth of traffic injuries and fatalities. For the sake of time, here’s a brief summary of what he concluded: No evidence of long-term increase of injury or fatality rates; cycling injury rates dropped by 14.5 percent in 1983 with no change in the number of cycling fatalities.
Does Meggs’ research reflect the “safety in numbers” philosophy? I’m willing to bet there’s a good chance it did. Think of it this way: Bike lanes — especially protected ones — represent a significant change in the way we view traffic patterns/expectations, and they are known to greatly improve safety.
Herein lies the logic of the Chaddick Study and Idaho Stop, which as it stands, seems as logical a proposal as they come: awareness. And consider for a moment that Chicago implemented the Chicago Stop. Isn’t it conceivable that a driver is more likely to be aware of a cyclist whenever they happen to be in the vicinity? That’s the argument, basically. For a city that purports to be bike-friendly, would it be so wrong to try something new?