Question: Can you explain the new law on safety stops for bicycles? Also, what are cyclists supposed to do if they’re at a traffic light and the sensor on the sidewalk never notices the bike is there?
To respond: From the emails I’ve received and the conversations I’ve had, it seems there is some confusion about a relatively new law. A year and a half ago, Washington’s law allowing cyclists to treat stop signs as give way signs came into effect. It is commonly referred to as the Idaho shutdown (Idaho was the first state to pass the law, in 1982), the Delaware yield (the second state, in 2017), or the safety shutdown. If you’re a cyclist and you think this law allows you to go through stop signs, that’s ridiculous, it doesn’t. If you’re a driver and you’re upset that the law allows cyclists to go through stop signs, relax, it doesn’t.
Perhaps the problem is that as road users, drivers and cyclists, we have misinterpreted road signs. A sign of surrender does not mean “look both ways, then go for it.” In the law called “Vehicle entering stop or intersection give way” (the same law that allows cyclists to treat stop signs as yield signs), it describes what it means to give way . Here’s the Reader’s Digest version: Slow down to a reasonable speed for the prevailing conditions. If necessary for safety, stop. After slowing down or stopping, yield to any vehicle in the intersection or approaching so close that it constitutes an immediate danger.
The law also adds that if you are involved in a collision after passing a yield sign without stopping, the collision is likely your fault. (Law uses a bit of Latin to explain it, but you get the idea.) Good performance requires a driver or rider to carefully assess their surroundings and choose the safest action based on what he observes. It is clear that the law has not authorized risky behavior for cyclists. It’s actually the opposite. It turns out that when states enforce the performance stop law for cyclists, accidents involving cyclists go down. It also increases the efficiency of intersections.
Despite the increase in safety and efficiency, I have heard people complain that the law is not fair; cyclists must follow the same rules as drivers. Here’s the thing: Equity and similarity are a false equivalence. We have other laws with different rules depending on the type of vehicle and we don’t consider them to be unfair. Would you say that because buses have to stop at railroad crossings or trucks are limited to 60 mph on the freeway, that all cars should also follow these rules? Fairness occurs when rules create fair outcomes. Increased safety for cyclists and more efficient intersections for drivers seem fairer and more just than the alternative.
Now for your second question: if you get stuck at an intersection where the vehicle detection device doesn’t notice your bicycle (or moped or motorcycle), after a complete cycle of ignoring, you can, after “showing caution”, continue through the crossroads. Just because you can doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Somewhere there will be other traffic with a green light and they won’t be waiting for you, so be very careful. Instead, I sometimes rolled around a bit and wiggled the car behind me forward until it was in position to trigger the vehicle sensor.
If an intersection has a bike icon painted on the sidewalk near the stop line, stop your bike right above it. It’s actually a bicycle detector symbol and it will change the light for you.