Dave Reid

Encourage More Bicyclists by Bringing the Idaho Stop Law to Wisconsin

By - Aug 6th, 2009 12:46 pm
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An important part of building a more bicycle friendly city, and for that matter state, is to update Wisconsin’s biking laws so that they in encourage more ridership instead of discouraging it.  For example, in June 2009 Governor Jim Doyle signed a new “anti-dooring” law that corrected existing regulation which required bicyclist to ride three feet away from parked cars.  This law actually protected drivers who opened their doors into bike lanes or streets without looking, which often results in injured bicyclists.  In fact, in August 2008 a bicyclist in Madison received a $10 fine after being doored so badly the rider ended up in the hospital.  The new law fines drivers $40 if they strike a bicyclist with the car door, and removes the three feet requirement.  This change is just one example of the many small steps forward needed towards encouraging more biking.

There are of course other tweaks to current laws that could encourage more ridership, or at the very least stop discouraging it, while not impacting safety.  In Idaho there is what is known as the “Idaho Stop” law.  In short it allows for bicyclists to consider Stop signs as Yield signs.  It’s not to say that new riders will instantly appear on the streets because of this change, clearly many riders already utilize this technique, but the current law places a stigma and legal detriment on these riders for what is essential a safe and practical way to ride.  This animation by Spencer Boomhower explains the reasons why this update to our laws helps bicyclists, and why it won’t impact safety.  What do you think?

Bicycles, Rolling Stops, and the Idaho Stop from Spencer Boomhower on Vimeo.


31 thoughts on “Encourage More Bicyclists by Bringing the Idaho Stop Law to Wisconsin”

  1. capper says:

    There is no argument as to the efficiency of the law, but I have doubts about the safety claims that are being made. I, as a driver, have already seen most people follow the Idaho Stop Law, even though it is not legal here in Milwaukee. I have also seen these same bicyclists get hurt, cause accidents, and create a generally unsafe condition that jeopardizes their own safety as well as the safety of those around them.

    This law might be fine in a less populated area, but not in a high traffic place like Milwaukee or Madison.

  2. Jeff says:

    Um, no. Encourage more bike use with more bike lanes, sure, but rolling stops on busy streets are a bad idea, no matter what the experience in Idaho is. As it is, bicyclists flirt with death by zipping through red lights and darting across legally moving traffic. If they’re on the street, they should obey traffic laws–for everybody’s benefit. And what’s with bicyclists taking a full lane in rush-hour traffic? It’s dangerous, and they obstruct traffic by going much slower than everybody else.

  3. Joel says:

    Idaho doesn’t have any city the size of Milwaukee. Does any other state have this “Idaho Stop Law?”

  4. Dave Reid says:

    @Joel There is a push to bring this to Oregon, but I’ll point out Boise is a city of 200,000+ roughly the same as Madison.

  5. Dave Reid says:

    @Jeff Sometimes it is safer as a bicyclist to eat up that lane so as to be seen. Further they have just as much a right to that space as anyone else. Again the rolling stop law is for when no cars are to be seen, otherwise it acts just like a Yield sign.

    Further I’m all for more more bike lanes, actually I’d like to see cycle tracks built, but there are many things to making biking more wide spread.

  6. Joel says:

    just to be clear, i was just stating a fact and askin a question. I probably sounded against biking.

    Anyways its a good idea, and reminds me of roundabouts; traffic yielding instead of sometimes stopping for no reason (me likey roundabouts). Also what is this “cycle track” you speak of Dave? Another term for bike path?

  7. KS says:

    This would bring the law into accord with common sense/reality. The facts are (1) cyclists already have a much bigger incentive not to flagrantly blow through a busy intersection (i.e., not getting killed) and (2) cyclists who still chose to do so are clearly in violation of the Idaho Stop law. This law would allow reasonable cyclists to bike in a safe and practical way, while eliminating the “rules of the road are too against me to be worth obeying” arguments of more fanatical Che Guevelo critical mass types.

    At the end of the day, instances of negligent cyclists killing people are freakishly rare, despite the allegedly rampant disregard for the rules of the road. This cannot be said about drivers. I myself have been hit by a car three times, twice on bike and once while walking. In none of these incidents was I proceeding illegally, each crash was due to poor and reckless driving. It seems to me that passing less antagonistic laws that cyclists can actually respect will only improve compliance and overall road safety.

    @Jeff. It’s a basic safety issue. I often take up a whole lane when cycling in order to force drivers to change lanes before passing me out, though not if there is a bike lane or ample space in an empty parking lane. Otherwise, I find drivers frequently tend to breeze by with about a foot’s clearance. Not too pleasant to have someone a draft of wind or bump in the road away from hitting you just so they can make it to the grocery store 10 seconds earlier.


  8. Jeff says:

    I certainly understand bicyclists taking a lane to make a left turn, and open doors from parked cars are a hazard for motorists too. (People, think!) But I also think it’s common courtesy to allow cars that find themselves behind a slow-moving bike some room to go through–just as bicyclists would like courtesies from motorists.

    There was an article on this same topic a few days ago in the Toronto Star: “Do cyclists need to stop at a stop sign?” The online comments parallel the discussion here. http://www.thestar.com/article/675301

  9. Dave Reid says:

    @Joel Cycletracks are curb separated bike lanes. A street layout might go sidewalk, cycletrack, parking, traffic lane. They’ve been in use in Copenhagen for a long time and they’ve help lead to much higher ridership numbers. That said not every street is appropriate or needs a cycletrack, sometimes it should be a bike lane, others cycletracks, but it is another more permanent option.

  10. Tim K - La Crosse says:

    Motorist often forget one of the key differences between them and cyclists. Or should I say about 4,000 pounds of difference. If I run through an intersection carelessly and get hit by or hit a car, I may slightly dent the infernal machine, but I am not going to kill a car with by hitting it with my head. Now if a car does the same thing, then the results are going to be much more different. A car is more likely to kill not only another car, good thing in my book, but to kill the driver, which is not such a good thing. Cyclists are also more aware of the fragility of their safety while on the road than motorists, so why not let us have a bit of leeway when it comes to stop signs. It is our necks that we are putting out there.

  11. Loxie says:

    Good discussion. I think bringing this law to wisconsin and elsewhere is a great idea, but it should be done covertly, not with any fanfare otherwise you’ll get an insane backlash and derail your efforts.

  12. Dave Reid says:

    @Loxie Next year’s budget? ha No. I hear what you are saying, as clearly people’s first instinct is that this will make things more dangerous, it will be twisted and misunderstood, and of course the car bias will out to fight it. That said part of its benefit is that the law becomes known and recognized by bicyclist and drivers….

  13. Just recently in Madison we had a Car vs. Bike accident. The intersection was clearly marked and the bicyclist had the stop sign. It is unclear if the rider rolled thru or blew thru the intersection. We don’t know because he’s dead! The topic of disscussion became; more regulation, more stop signs, more restrictions. The local news started covering it and they did a remote from the location of the accident. As they were showing the intersection and how people respond to the stop sign most people were looking first and then rolling thru…with the exception of one dude. His head was down, as if looking intently at his handlebars and never looked up as he sailed right thru the intersection, he didn’t even slow down.

    Well the news crew stopped him and asked him why he didn’t look and his answer was “I DON’T KNOW”.

    By the looks of the guy, the way he was dressed, he was not a bicyclist. He only road a bike to get around. And if your going to be self absorbed, for whatever reason, then no law is going to protect you from being hit. It’s only a matter of time.

    The Idaho Stop Law would benefit bicyclist everywhere if only people payed attention and respect all other traffic on the road.

  14. Dave says:

    I ride my bike about 4,500 miles per year, and most of these miles are what I call “utility” miles, that is, travel that I would otherwise use a car for, such as getting to work, the store, etc. I ride year round and in all kinds of weather. It doesn’t seem that long ago that I was riding home in a 35 degree driving sleet, and I know that however warm it is now, winter will be back before you know it.

    For the most part I peacefully coexist with cars. It does appear that more drivers than in the past have gotten the memo that bikes are legal users of the road. But there is a persistent minority of drivers that will never be on board with it. You can obey all the rules of the road to the letter. You can even cede your own right of way (as I do regularly), but they will still be mad at you simply because you’re on a bike. I have had drivers yell at me to “stop” at a stop sign while I’m standing there with my foot off the pedal, at a stop. You can’t win.

    When you ride every day, you get philosophical about it. Every rider has his or her own style. I for one am not too proud to cede my right of way to some motorist who doesn’t get it. I just want them gone. I always stop at lighted intersections and wait till the light turns green to go. But I usually don’t come to a complete stop at stop signs, because 90% of the time when I approach a stop sign there is no one there. If I were to come to a complete stop at every sign, it would take me hours to get anywhere. I carefully proceed with caution. In other words, I use the Idaho Stop.

    The fact of the matter is that a good chunk of the “rules of the road” are so routinely violated by drivers so as to become meaningless. There is a certain style of driving that is totally and completely inappropriate for urban streets: aggressive, speeding up and hitting the brakes, quick lane changes with no warning, etc. This style of driving is the norm in Milwaukee and most other major cities. In response to this lawlessness, this casual disregard for the safety of others, the biker has live by his or her own rules. I have my code and I stick to it.

  15. Curt says:

    Kieran seems to be a menance on the roadway. Taking up a whole lane is dangerous and I believe against the law. You are supposed to be as far to the right as you can safely navigate. And if you’ve been hit by three separate people, I think you seriously need to look at your riding habits and road awareness as causes. When I was younger, I used to race, and road incredible miles, and if you are a safe aware biker, even close calls are a very rare thing. But if you are riding down the middle of the road, and becoming a traffic hazard, you are endangering both your own and other peoples lives.

  16. Jeff says:

    For the sake of argument … if cyclists can do rolling stops at stop signs, why can’t motorists? Yes, cars are heavier and can do more damage, but if no one’s there, so what? We’d like to get places more quickly too.

  17. Dave Reid says:

    @Jeff Because the risk of harm to others is so much higher.

  18. Jeff says:

    But if no one’s there? A cyclist could miss someone crossing an intersection, hit them, and cause injury as well. Vespas aren’t heavy; why not make stops optional for them as well? I just don’t buy the idea that bicycles are a special class. You’re on the street, you’re moving, so obey the traffic laws.

  19. Dave Reid says:

    @Jeff Clearly a bike isn’t the same as a car or SUV right? Think just weight alone. The level of potential harm to others is just on completely different scales. If a cyclist makes a mistake the potential harm to others is just less than someone in a car making the very same mistake.

  20. KS says:

    @Dave. I definitely agree with you. There’s too many idiots on the road, cyclists included, to complacently rely on the law to keep you safe. Survival first.

    @Curt. Good for you regarding your past cycling experiences. Maybe things have changed, because my experiences of being hit are (in order of occurrence):
    1) walking across a crosswalk with the light in my favour, hit by an idiot turning left (a former schoolmate as it turned out); and flew onto his windscreen;
    2) slowly coasting my bike across a crosswalk next to my friend who was walking; again with the light in my favour; and had my rear tire knocked out by an inattentive old man making a right turn; and
    3) riding in the bike lane at night but with my lights set to flash; sideswiped by a driver who pulled into my lane to avoid waiting behind a person turning left.

    I’d like to know how any of these instances was due to my riding habits or road awareness. The drivers in cases 1) and 3) certainly didn’t think so and readily admitted fault. I don’t think the old man in case 2) even realized that he bent my back tire. Maybe you seriously need to look at your communication habits before jumping to conclusions and making idiotic statements. Incidentally, it seems to me that this mix of driver aggression and ignorance is sadly typical of cycling debates. It’s also a big reason why many of us choose to bike defensively.

    @Jeff. Sorry, maybe I should clarify. Riding in the middle of the lane (which BTW is legal) is a safety measure based on personal experience of being skimmed by drivers who think they can squeak by without changing lanes at least a bit. It is not meant to antagonize people. As I said, I cede the lane if space safely permits. Lots of other cyclists logically do the same thing.

    To your other point, I don’t think it’s reasonable to directly equate a car with a bike when it comes to stopping and then argue that they’re completely different when it comes to taking up a lane. Contradictory perhaps? One can only expect cyclists to bike defensively so long as the infrastructure (both physical and legal) and driver awareness are absent. The Idaho Stop law is a step in the right direction.

  21. Dave says:

    Jeff, I actually wouldn’t be opposed to legalizing the rolling stop for motorists when there’s no other cars, bikes or pedestrians around. The vast majority of drivers do it anyway (as a cyclist I have come to expect it), and it might actually help with fuel efficiency, since it takes a lot of energy for a car to get moving after a full stop.

  22. Will says:

    No, Jeff, you are dead wrong. It is MUCH safer for a bike rider to take a whole lane. When we don’t, people try to slip by us without changing lanes, and THAT is what is unsafe for the rider and car alike.

  23. Jeff Jordan says:

    What a great discussion. Because of physical limitations, I can ‘t ride a bike, but I do use my moped. I’m aware of the dangers cyclist go through on a daily basis because of two things, visibility and a lack of respect. The door danger is a given. Often motorists, (Think Lincoln Memorial Drive) anxious to get on with their business, won’t even glance behind them before opening their door, but if they do they will most likely see a car. Motorists seeing me on my “piglet” or a cyclist is not certain.
    The other issue is about respecting others. NO doubt we need more bike lanes, but drivers have to understand what a bike lane means. It should be a given, when in doubt yield to the more vulnerable cyclist. I think that many motorists feel that they own the road and anything other than a four wheel compatriot is an invasion of their territory and a nuisance to be tolerated.
    I have no problem with the rolling stop law. It is a judgment call on the part of the cyclist and they have the most to lose. Besides, as many have pointed out, a lot of them do it already.
    We need to get more people out of thier cars and using alternative transportation. We can’t make them do it , but we can encourage them and make it easier and safer to abandon their car.
    PS: To all of those drivers who can’t drive behind a moped and have to pass, no matter how dangerous. The reason I’m riding at 40 MPH on Lincoln Memorial is that is the normal traffic speed, even though it’s over the speed limit. I’m not doing it to piss you off and make you late for work. I can get 55 out of the little guy if it’s warranted.

  24. MilwaukeeBrewerGal says:

    I think we need to focus our efforts on other types of legislation rather than the ‘Idaho’ stop… For example, requiring all motorists to have insurance.

    Drivers have gotten better about bikes on the road…but there are so many people out there that are stupid… The ‘dooring’ law is a fantastic bit of legislation that offers more protection. I was hit by a car door a year ago…and thankfully he had insurance to pay for my injuries…

  25. Dave Reid says:

    @MilwaukeeBrewerGal I think the insurance idea is likely a good one (I thought there was something in the budget regarding this). That said, the best way to improve bicycling safety is to get more bikes on the road. Yes, safety in numbers. So in addition to bike infrastructure I think the currently regulation of bicycles take an anti-riding position that should be changed. It is about changing the culture, riding shouldn’t just be for the hard core rider, but for the everyday person and this change helps them. It’s just one small change but we definitely still need all sorts of infrastructure improvements.

  26. Nick says:

    @Dave Despite being incredibly late to this discussion (it’s still on the front page, tho!), I wanted to ask your opinion regarding cycle tracks and Wisconsin’s incredibly inclement weather during the winters. I know they have separate ‘plow trucks’ for the cycle tracks over there, but snow removal and dealing with icing issues could be hard.

    I’m just not convinced that the sort of infrastructure they have in Copenhagen and Amsterdam would survive more than 2 years here as careless plow drivers would probably destroy them. And do they end up with snowbanks on the street that are frequently 2 or 3 feet high? I’m just not sure where you would go with all the snow and how you’d prevent snow from the sidewalks or road from being dumped into the cycle track. For example, I could see some stuck motorist digging out their car and just dumping it into the cycle track without caring.

    I say this as a year-round cyclist who deals with unplowed bike lanes that get frozen-over by taking side streets that have very little traffic so that I can have the plowed traffic lane to myself.

  27. Dave Reid says:

    @Nick I definitely hear the concerns, though for one I’m not suggesting every street gets cycletracks. Certain major routes could be built. Second I found this article that talks a little bit about the issue http://www.copenhagenize.com/2008/12/salt-guards-and-keeping-bike-lanes.html Finally, I think the bigger point is that building the infrastructure will over time lead to more usage, and at that point a better balance of priorities could emerge as far as snow removal. Right now for example bike lanes are considered just extra space so the parking lanes don’t have to be plowed very well i.e. the cars can sit in it during the winter. To resolved this more riders are required so that their voices become heard… It took Copenhagen 40 years to become the bike city it is today, and they did it with many many small changes..

  28. Dave Reid says:

    @Nick Incidentally what is it like riding in the winter?

  29. Dave says:

    Dave, like Nick I’m a winter bike commuter, so allow me to also respond to your question.

    Winter riding takes some doing, but it’s really not that bad. You’d be surprised how quickly you warm yourself up, even on really cold days. In fact the challenge with riding in the winter isn’t staying warm, it’s keeping yourself from overheating.

    Every winter rider has their own method to deal with the madness. I adhere to a simple three-layer approach. A polyester or other synthetic base layer that wicks the moisture away from your skin. I call this my “Superman layer.” Middle layer, an old wool sweater or fleece. Top layer, a simple windbreaker with good ventilation. The key is layers and NO COTTON. Cotton traps the dampness close to your skin and will really make you miserable. I learned this the hard way.

    These three layers can keep you comfortable and warm on most days. On those rare winter days where the air temp is well below zero, you’re still going to be really cold. On those days it’s just pure physical endurance. Not pleasant, but doable. But in reality your average winter day around here is in the mid 20s. With layers (and no cotton) anyone can deal effectively with temps like that.

    Some riders prefer to take the well-plowed main streets, others prefer less traveled side streets, which have more snow and ice, but fewer cars. I go for the latter. I have special studded snow tires that turn my bike into a two-wheeled snowmobile. With these specialized snow tires, you cannot fall down. You can hammer over any kind of ice or snow, except deep, fresh snow. It actually can be fun. But snow and ice turns the city into an obstacle course. In winter you have to be even more careful as a biker. There is less operating room on the streets.

    Winter riding is harder on your bike than on your body. All the salt, grit, sand, dirt and oil on the streets gets into your moving parts and can destroy your bike if you’re not careful. At least twice a week in the winter I take my bike down to the basement and fully work it over, cleaning all gears and moving parts, keeping everything well lubed.

    I keep my bike parked outside during the winter. If you keep it inside, then any moisture that collects in the moving parts while inside will freeze when you ride it. So it’s best to keep it outside so moisture can develop.

  30. KS says:

    Agree with the above. Winter biking is generally fine so long as you bundle up, wear a damn good pair of gloves, and have the patience to scrub the inevitable dust and salt off your bike. You get used to it, it’s fine.

    Regarding cycle tracks. I think they’re a good idea, but they need to be planned well to avoid accidents. I would definitely be concerned about intersections if there is a row parked cars (and street furniture) between a driver and a cycle track. It seems like visibility would be a problem for drivers making turns across the cycle track. Just my speculation, but it seems like it would be especially problematic on the long straight streets with frequent perpendicular intersections that are common in Milwaukee. Cyclists would almost always be parallel to traffic with an intervening layer of parked cars obstructing the view. This seems less than ideal and could be dangerous.

    Hopefully good planning can resolve such issues. Definitely think dedicated infrastructure would help more casual riders get out on their bikes.


  31. Columbusite says:

    At lights I come to a complete stop, but stop signs I’ll normally slow to a near stop if there are no other vehicles. By then I have looked to the side, the other side, and back once more to be sure. If that means I shouldn’t be on the road, then neither should drivers because every single day I see many of them do rolling stops at stop signs and red lights (At a busy 4-way stop a taxi was turning towards me even though I came to a complete stop first and was already proceeding halfway through the intersection. I yelled at him that the stop sign means “stop”.), run red lights well after they’ve turned red, and speed over the limit. In the end, police generally don’t enforce laws against cyclists anyway so I see this law being rather pointless since the people who are already running through red lights and stop signs will continue to do so and those that don’t will be the same that are already following the rules.

    As far as this bike-lane/cycle track nonsense in an urban area, let me summarize why it’s idiotic: cars, bikes, scooters, and other road vehicles should all be using the road in the same way to be as predictable by other users as possible. When you have some users of the road using it in a different manner altogether you create conflicts that didn’t exist before which can and do kill people. Riding in a bike lane, which puts you in a motorists blind spot, is more dangerous than riding smack dab in the middle of a regular lane where they can’t hep but notice you (you should still be equipped with a mirror) and a cycle-track attempts to create a segregated system, but every intersection create another conflict between a fragile cyclist and 2000+ lb vehicles, thereby failing in it’s attempt. The only safe cycle track/segregated bike system would be one that is truly segregated: a “monocycle”, where you have an above-ground network of bike lanes a la, the monorail.

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