How Do Safety Stop Laws Protect Bicyclists?

As cycling continues to grow in popularity across the United States, communities are seeking ways to make it safer. Washington state recently passed a Safety Stop law. Washington’s bicycle community welcomes the new law and hopes it will increase safety in their community. Effective on October 1, 2020, the new law makes it legal bicyclists to treat stop signs as yield signs. The law has requirements of cyclists approaching stop signs and has a couple of important exceptions.

Are Bicyclists Safer If They Perform an Idaho Stop?

Intersections are hazardous for cyclists. There is always confusion regarding right of way. Sometimes vehicular drivers improperly yield to cyclists. Other times, drivers insist on leading the way. Drivers often do not see a cyclist when turning in the cyclist’s direction. The results have proven dangerous. Communities have been exploring safety stops as one way to reduce the confusion and increase cyclist safety.

Studies conducted in other cities have shown that allowing bicyclists to take the lead at stop signs improves safety for the bicyclist and improves intersection efficiency. 

A 2016 DePaul study discussed a safety stop procedure called “Idaho Stops.” Cyclists are often frustrated by the requirement to stop. The constant starting and stopping tires them and causes repetitive motion injuries.  Instead, a cyclist’s natural inclination is to slow down as they approach an intersection, check for traffic, proceed if it is safe, and stop if it is not. “Idaho stops” legalize what cyclists already tend to do.

Additionally, when bicyclists get a head start at intersections, they are more visible to drivers located behind them. This helps avoid crashes in which the driver turns across the path of a cyclist in the vehicle’s blind spot. The study found that using an Idaho stop was particularly safe at 4 way stops where cars are required to stop.  

The Idaho law requires that at a stop sign a cyclist must slow down and stop, if needed, before entering the intersection. After slowing down or coming to a complete stop, the rider must yield the right-of-way to any vehicle in or approaching the intersection closely enough to constitute an immediate hazard.

The study evaluated cyclists’ natural tendency to roll slow down and roll through stop signs rather than coming to a complete stop. Only 1 in 50 cyclists came to a complete stop when there was no cross-traffic present. This tendency to roll through makes it easier for the cyclist. Stopping and starting tires the cyclist more easily.

A 2010 U.C. Berkeley study compared bike safety in cities that used “Idaho stops” to those that did not. The study postulated that bicyclists have been lumped together with motor vehicles with regard to traffic laws. This subjects cyclists to unnecessary stops that are really meant to calm and slow vehicular motor traffic.  This study found that bicycle injuries declined 14.5% the year after adoption of safety stop laws.

Washington’s New Law

SB 6208 was signed into law on March 18, 2020. It went into effect on October 1st. The law codifies the Idaho stop in Washington. It allows a cyclist to legally treat a stop sign as a yield sign if there is no other traffic and the cyclist has slowed down to a reasonable speed. The cyclist must yield to those who have the right of way or already in the intersection – including motorists and pedestrians.

The law pertains to all bicycles whether human powered or electric assisted. The law pertains only to stop signs. A cyclist must still come to a full stop at all signal lights, even when the cyclist is in a bike lane, and at all school bus and railroad stop signs.

The law pertains only to bikes. It excludes scooters and motor scooters. Other states that have adopted safety stop laws include Idaho, Delaware, Arkansas, and Oregon. 

Increased Clarity Should Help to Keep Riders Safe

It may take drivers some time to grow accustomed to this new law. Transportation is in a period of flux as society moves away from motor vehicles and toward increased pedestrian, cyclist, and motor scooter traffic. Legalizing this stop for cyclists will make intersections much safer for cyclists.

The law specifies the duties of the cyclist. Cyclists who do not slow down in approaching intersections may see increased traffic citations. Overall, however, both cyclists and drivers will benefit from decreased confusion and increased clarity.