Stop sign means yield for bicyclists; it is fair

Q: Can you explain the new safety stop law for bikes? Also, what are bike riders supposed to do if they’re at a traffic signal and the sensor in the pavement doesn’t know the bike is there?

A: A year and a half ago, Washington’s law permitting cyclists to treat stop signs as yield signs took effect. It’s commonly called the Idaho stop (Idaho was the first state to pass the law, in 1982), the Delaware yield (the second state, in 2017), or the safety stop. If you’re a cyclist and you think this law gives you permission to blow through stop signs, it doesn’t. If you’re a driver and you’re mad that the law lets cyclists blow through stop signs, relax, it doesn’t.

Maybe the problem is that as road users, both drivers and bike riders, we’ve been misinterpreting yield signs. A yield sign does not mean, “look both ways and then go for it.” In the law titled, “Vehicle entering stop or yield intersection” (the same law that allows cyclists to treat stop signs as yield signs) it describes what it means to yield. Here’s the Reader’s Digest version: Slow down to a reasonable speed for the existing conditions. If required for safety, stop. After slowing or stopping, yield the right-of-way to any vehicle in the intersection or approaching so closely so as to constitute an immediate hazard. The law also adds that if you’re involved in a collision after going past a yield sign without stopping, the collision is probably your fault.

A proper yield requires a driver or cyclist to carefully evaluate their environment and choose the safest action based on what they observe. It’s clear that the law hasn’t authorized risky behavior for cyclists. It’s actually the opposite. It turns out that when states implement the stop-as-yield law for bike riders, crashes involving cyclists go down. It also increases the efficiency of intersections.

Despite the increases in safety and efficiency, I’ve heard some folks complain that the law isn’t fair; bike riders should follow the same rules as drivers. Here’s the thing: fairness and sameness are a false equivalence. We have other laws with varying rules depending on the type of vehicle, and we don’t consider them unfair. Would you argue that because buses have to stop at train crossings or that trucks are limited to 60 mph on the freeway, that all cars should also follow those rules?

Fairness happens when rules create just outcomes. Increased safety for cyclists and more efficient intersections for drivers sounds more fair and just than the alternative.

Now for your second question: If you’re stuck at an intersection where the vehicle detection device doesn’t notice your bike after one full cycle of being ignored you can, after “exercising due care,” proceed through the intersection. Just because you can though, doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.

Somewhere there’s going to be other traffic with a green light, and they’re not going to be expecting you, so be extra careful. As an alternative, I’ve sometimes rolled up a bit and waved the car behind me forward until it’s in position to trigger the vehicle sensor.

If an intersection has a bike icon painted on the pavement near the stop line, stop your bike right over it. It’s actually a bike detector symbol, and it’ll change the light for you.

Doug Dahl writes a weekly column for this newspaper. He is the Target Zero manager for the state Traffic Safety Commission.