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Is “Idaho-style” stop sign law the way to go?


With the recent flap over stop sign enforcement, there is growing momentum to consider a change in the law. Idaho’s example is often held up as a model Oregon might seek to emulate.

Since 1982 Idaho has had a law in the books that allows cyclists to treat stop-signs as yields. In 2005 lawmakers went one step further and passed legislation that said stop-lights can be treated like stop-signs.

Is this type of law necessary in Oregon? The jury is still out but it already seems to have some momentum.

At the beginning of this legislative session, citizen activist Bjorn Warloe made the first steps in proposing a bill for what he calls, “Idaho style”. Warloe found the interest and support of Senator Jason Atkinson (R-Grants Pass). The two had a meeting, but the bill was never officially introduced.

Statewide advocacy group the Bicycle Transportation Alliance (BTA) has said they would support the “roll-and-go concept”.

To shed more light on this idea, a reader who was recently ticketed in the OMSI construction zone (for rolling a stop while obeying a flagger’s “Slow” sign), took it upon herself to contact the bicycle and pedestrian coordinator for the state of Idaho, Mark McNeese.

Here’s what she found out:

“Idaho’s stop-sign law has been in effect since 1982, allowing cyclists to treat stop-signs as yield-signs for 25 years. In 2005, a group of cyclists got together and found a legislator who would sponsor the stop-light law, where stop-lights are treated like stop-signs. When testifying, cyclists voiced their frustration over not being able to trip traffic lights, and expressed their feeling that it is safer for them to go through the intersection without parallel traffic. Even a motorcycle cop said he goes through red lights when his motorcycle does not trip the light.

So, instead of spending millions of dollars retrofitting the intersections to be sensitive to cyclists, the legislature passed this law to make stop-lights stop-signs for cyclists. After the law was passed, the Idaho Transportation Department educated bicycle communities about the new law by sending out informational pamphlets. Since the law has passed, there has not been a noticeable increase in crashes. Mark said, “nothing bad has happened.”

It is worth noting that the largest city in Idaho, Boise, has just half the population and less population density than Portland. Also, the total population of Idaho is 1,293,953 (pop. density 15.64/sq mi.) compared to the total population of Oregon which is 3,421,399 (pop. density 35.6/sq mi.).

In response to her inquiry, the reader received a letter from McNeese:

“In retrospect the stop-sign law is not a bad law. It certainly makes riding a bike more enjoyable. Overcoming inertia takes a lot of energy from a cyclist. However, there are two issues that need to be addressed. One is how the motor vehicle driver perceives the cyclist who in his uneducated view is breaking the law when the cyclist rolls through a stop sign or makes a rolling right on red, and two, the safety issue for younger cyclists who view this behavior of more experienced cyclists.

In addressing the motor vehicle operator reaction one can easily observe that the majority of motor vehicle operators do not come to a complete stop at stop signs or when turning right on red unless traffic conditions dictate that they do—regardless of what the “law” states. The bicyclist rolls through a little faster however, when conditions and sight distance permit, and some people may view this as a blatant disregard for safety. I can assure you that cyclists understand very well the repercussions of motor-vehicle/bicycle collisions and are not “blatantly” inviting disaster by disregarding common-sense safety checks at these well-marked intersections.

Young or inexperienced bicycle riders often ride on sidewalks and obey pedestrian crossing rules. Safety educators in Idaho teach all riders to STOP at stop signs to maximize SAFETY. The “law” isn’t emphasized in any safety presentations. If you teach children safety based on obedience to the law eventually the decision will be “do I want to obey the law?” and if the answer is no then the resulting disobedience may put that person or others at risk. Emphasizing safety instills a “cause and effect” perspective that is harder to ignore.

The red-light stop-and-go law has not been in effect long enough to give intelligent comment on other than for many cyclists nothing has changed. Right or wrong, this was the way they rode. Many traffic sensitive devices at lights do not pick up cyclists. The cost for installing special devices in a time of shrinking transportation dollars is a constant struggle. I guess this state has found a way to bypass that and time will tell if the decision was the right one.

In closing, I believe there is no substitute for a well-organized and ongoing bicycle and pedestrian safety-education campaign at the local level. The development of safe facilities is just as important. The organization, development, and implementation, whether education or facility related, must be a collaborative effort of law enforcement, educators, citizens, and local government officials who are concerned about the issues of bicycle and pedestrian safety.

I would be glad to continue this discussion or answer any other questions you may have.

Mark McNeese
Idaho Transportation Department
Sr. Transportation Planner
State Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator

Here is the Idaho code language:

Bicycle-related IDAHO CODE Title 49 Chapter 7; Revised July 1, 2005
(download PDF)

49-720. STOPPING — TURN AND STOP SIGNALS.

(1) A person operating a bicycle or human-powered vehicle approaching a stop sign shall slow down and, if required for safety, stop before entering the intersection. After slowing to a reasonable speed or stopping, the person shall yield the right-of-way to any vehicle in the intersection or approaching on another highway so closely as to constitute an immediate hazard during the time the person is moving across or within the intersection or junction of highways, except that a person after slowing to a reasonable speed and yielding the right-of-way if required, may cautiously make a turn or proceed through the intersection without stopping.

(2) A person operating a bicycle or human-powered vehicle approaching a steady red traffic control light shall stop before entering the intersection and shall yield to all other traffic. Once the person has yielded, he may proceed through the steady red light with caution. Provided however, that a person after slowing to a reasonable speed and yielding the right-of-way if required, may cautiously make a right-hand turn. A left-hand turn onto a one-way highway may be made on a red light after stopping and yielding to other traffic.

The Idaho example is good fodder for discussion but would a similar law make sense (or have a chance of passing) in Oregon?

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