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Steve's post about the "Idaho Stop" and cyclists' behavior at intersections in general caused me to reflect on my own habits when encountering the red octagon on my bicycle commute. That, and the guy on the bicycle today who ran a red light and would have hit me on my bike if I hadn't evaded. It seems to me that the reasons given for cyclists to roll through stop signs are that they slow us down, and that it takes more effort for a cyclist to come to a complete stop and then get back up to speed. Both are true, but are not sufficient reasons for me to break the law.
Stop signs slow cyclists down: yes, they do. But I don't ride my bicycle because it is the fastest way to work. Actually, I ride because I enjoy the time on the road without email, cell phone, or other distractions. I've mentioned this before. If getting to work as fast as possible was of paramount concern, then I would work from home, which is an option, and be at work instantly. If I was a bike messenger transporting a newly harvested heart for a transplant patient, or an elite racer in an actual race, or faced the exceptional situation of being late for a meeting, then slowing down would bug me. But none of these is the case on my typical day. If you are habitually late for meetings or have to rush to get into work every day, then you have other challenges to tackle, and placing blame on stop signs for slowing you down is just distracting you from focusing on the true issues. Your haste is not a sound basis in favor of changing the law. Haste is not a virtue.
It takes more effort for a cyclist to get back up to speed after coming to a complete stop: yes, it does. I don't ride my bicycle to work because it's the easiest method, either. In fact, I appreciate the exercise, I enjoy the exertion, and don't look for ways to make my route easier or less work, which would rather defeat one of the reasons for riding in the first place. I don't go out of my way to make it so difficult that it would be unpleasant, I mean I could add real difficulty by strapping cinder blocks on my rack and riding fat knobby tires over the mountain on the way in or something similar. All I'm saying is that small added challenges are welcomed and not avoided; the brief slowdown and added effort to get back up to speed is part of the ride. "I like the ride but I don't like the effort of pedaling back up to speed after a stop sign," appears contradictory to me upon brief analysis. What? Why? Talk me through that. Bad knees? OK, fair enough, me too, but my problem is bad knees, not stop signs, I don't blame traffic signals for my physical infirmities.
Regarding the "everyone does it" argument: please. I once drove up to a four-way stop in dinner plate-flat farmland in the late fall at mid-day, and could see that there were no other cars, or anyone else for that matter, for a mile in every direction. My passenger, Dr. M visiting from Nigeria, started chuckling as I slowed down, and was laughing heartily as I came to a complete stop, looked, and then proceeded. "Americans," he said, "Stopping when no one is around." He was probably right in that situation. I do not think that running that stop, or rolling through it, is cause for concern. But, change the situation to a busy four-way with vehicles coming from every direction, two or three deep waiting their turn, and everyone including bicycles better come to a complete stop. Unless you're the cyclist wearing the "FRESH ORGAN TRANSPORT URGENT RUSH" vest, I'm unclear what the big hurry would be that would justify acting otherwise. (And Dr. M, by the way, proceeded to tell me that driving in the cities in his country where everyone DOES do it is pure chaotic mayhem, which I don't mind avoiding.) "Everyone does it" is a specious and unconvincing argument for rolling stops.
In the in-between scenario, not desolate emptiness and not rush hour four-way waiting dance, the situation is; UNKNOWN. And unknown is a dicey setting to throw your two-wheeled machine heedlessly into the intersection without adequately stopping and looking. If you roll the same stop sign every day, you can learn the hard way on that 1-in-1000 day that conditions change, whether a slippery surface from a light rain, or a ball game letting out, or construction, or distraction, or fatigue, or whatever, and you should have stopped, looked, and assessed the intersection for a couple of seconds. Anything else than strict, canonical four-way stop behavior is dicey, uncertain, and potentially unsafe, with no compelling argument why the less-safe behavior is outweighed by the benefits of less slowing down or lack of increased effort for cyclists. On the flipside, slowing down gives you one more moment to reflect. Speeding back up burns more calories.
This post reflects my current thoughts and behavior based on the current traffic laws of my state, which require cyclists to observe stop signs. Occasionally, as the Friday Cyclotouriste recently learned, authorities here enforce that law. I would rather not see cyclists get traffic tickets. But I don't know why we would behave in a manner which would give authorities reason to issue citations to us, and any explanation we could offer to the officer, other than the URGENT ORGAN TRANSPLANT messenger, isn't going to cut it.
Nor would I advocate special laws like the "Idaho Stop" for cyclists at stop signs, since I am only confident that they would be safe in the middle-of-nowhere certainty scenario listed above, and introducing ambiguity of who-does-what at stop signs is also not a positive step. I do agree that the move to replace YIELD signs with STOP signs with wild abandon was probably misguided, and we would be better off on the surface streets with more inverted triangles and less red octagons, but that appears unlikely to happen. So slow down. Stop. Wait your turn. Look around and experience the world around you. Check that the intersection is safe while acknowledging that your fellow human beings share the road with you. Do the four-way stop dance. Enjoy the feel of the pedals beneath your feet. A little extra effort to start up again is good. The stop sign is not a personal affront to your urgent rush. And if it is, perhaps it's the urgent rush you ought to consider, as to causes and options, rather than blaming the red sign, which is just there to perform a simple function.