Thursday, July 28, 2011

All Stop: Tire to the Line and Foot Down

Not an optional suggestion

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.


  1. Thank you for this. I should come ride with you. I always seem to be the only person in my group who considers it wise to stop (or for some, even slow down) at stop signs.

  2. I'm so happy to read this! You nailed the stop sign issue directly on the head.

  3. The frequent "Get up. Go ride" would have seemed contradictory in this post!

    For the record, in case it was unclear, I do NOT advocate different stop rules for cyclists. Given the proliferation of stop signs that should have been yield or even unsigned, I'm not sure JRA's solution is realistic because there are not enough police to beat the scofflaw motorists into submission, much less the people on bikes that see the "s" in stop as advice to "s" as in speed up.

    One good thing about stop signs, for cyclists that care, is they drive me to a better balance between quiet streets and few stop signs.

  4. I think I'm going to use stop signs to practice my trackstands.

  5. Debbie and JK, happy you stopped by! :) It's good to hear a couple of cyclists agree, anyway.

    Steve, one scofflaw at a time, is my motto. I was going to mention Kennedy Blvd in Bayonne, NJ which has about a hundred stoplights one block apart, as an extreme example of a street I would avoid on a bike if possible.

    limom, video or it didn't happen.

  6. I appreciate your sentiment, but your post is awfully self-righteous. And since you've already stated there's "no compelling argument" contrary to yours, I won't bother.

    I will say that personally, I'm inclined to grant a little more leeway with cyclists, in assessing risks and riding in a way they feel is safe. They face more hazards and challenges on the roads than car drivers do, and cyclists aren't piloting a several-thousand-pound missile.

    I believe people should be able to make their own decisions, especially concerning their own safety.

    I'm not advocating riding recklessly, but I think there is some middle ground here, and frankly I'm a little surprised you aren't more tolerant of others' ideas in this area.

    All that said, I do get what you're saying, and I have seen a lot of reckless behavior that's absolutely baffling. But you seem to lump everyone who ever runs a stop sign in the same category, which seems awfully extreme. Like most things, I don't think this issue is just black and white.

  7. Why do you think uncertainty in traffic interactions is necessarily bad? Uncertainty causes motorists to slow down and look more carefully about what they're heading into.

    Uncertainty is one of the elements that make "Shared Space" traffic design work so well. Of course, they also yank out all the worthless stop signs! The system relies on Apertome's judgment so you're both back in harmony.

  8. Counterposts are SO fun! There is even a SPECIAL JRA sign...

  9. Apertome, my initial reaction was to deny being self-righteous (moi? non!) but then I thought, he's right, there are a few proposition that I hold to be true, and feel confident about defending: bicycle riding is fun and good for you, cyclists should not ride against traffic in the bike lane or on the street, and in this post, cyclists should come to a full stop and not get special laws related to existing stop signs. As to the "no compelling argument" statement, my phrasing is infelicitous, in that I meant something along the lines of "I haven't yet heard a compelling argument." I may be self-righteous about it, but am most definitely NOT a stop sign bigot: I am very open to any compelling counter-argument, please post away and I am very open to changing my mind. I would imagine that in the extremely rare situation that you had to run a stop sign due to an imminent safety threat, and a policeman saw you, the reason would at least be plausible (Sir, I had to run the stop to avoid hitting the baby carriage that darted out in front of me out of nowhere! Did you see that?) Under regular old traffic conditions where I live and ride (Phoenix, AZ, 2011, not under all possible conditions or places) though, I am doubtful that breaking the law consistently is somehow safer for cyclists. It is legal to ride on the sidewalk here, for example, which gives me an out in certain situations that otherwise would be a "What else ya gonna do?" type of situation.

    Steve, I like your comments and my "special" sign! My post is related to current laws and traffic engineering here, as I mentioned, my habits and conclusions would be totally different if we had more YIELD signs or more "shared space" traffic design. Until that time, though, I won't run stops.


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