The Online Voice of the Bicycle Alliance of Washington

Thursday, June 17, 2010

To Roll or Not To Roll

Hi, my name is Katie, and I roll through stop signs.

I’ll be the first to admit that I ride right through 4 stop signs in on my morning commute across I-90 (sometimes I slow down…sometimes I don’t). In the afternoon, I blow through so many stop signs on the Burke-Gilman trail that I can’t even count them. When this topic comes up, I usually hasten to add that I always stop at stop lights, as if that redeems my blatantly illegal stop sign flaunting.

I know the law; RCW 46.61.190 states quite clearly,
(2) Except when directed to proceed by a duly authorized flagger, or a police officer, or a firefighter vested by law with authority to direct, control, or regulate traffic, every driver of a vehicle approaching a stop sign shall stop at a clearly marked stop line
Since bicyclists are drivers of vehicles (RCW 46.04.670), this law clearly applies to us. Yet if you’re like me, you have probably rolled through your share of stop signs, too. And odds are, like me, you don’t feel particularly guilty about those illegal non-stops, either -- even if the behavior outrages motorists a little bit.

Why is stopping, or not stopping, at a stop sign such a big deal? There has been plenty of discussion about why (here, here, and here [PDF], for starters). As fellow bicyclists, you probably already have an answer ready, and I bet your answer runs along these lines: It all comes down to momentum, an issue that doesn’t even register on the radar of motorists or even most pedestrians. Bicyclists crave momentum, hoard it, and release it only under duress. Stopping at stop signs, particularly at completely empty intersections at the bottom of big hills, kills our momentum and makes us work hard to get going again. This rubs us the wrong way, particularly at empty intersections.

However, few topics divide cyclists more quickly than what to do around stop signs. That means there's an entire contingent of vehicular cyclists who say that the law is clear: Bicyclists should "drive" their pedal-powered vehicles the same as they would a motor vehicle, including coming to a full and complete stop* when traffic control devices mandate it. Additionally, there are other concerns around riding through stop signs: It makes cyclists unpredictable and thus more prone to collisions with other vehicles; it infuriates motorists and increases ill-will between motorists and cyclists (see, for example, here, here, and here); it makes the cyclist more likely to hit pedestrians in crosswalks; the reasons and concerns go on.

This brings us to the question of what we should do about this issue. The law clearly doesn’t reflect reality, and many cyclists would argue that the law shouldn’t apply to us for various reasons. Alternatives such as the Idaho stop have received plenty of discussion, but our strict stop-at-stop-signs law remains on the books. Should the Bicycle Alliance pursue an Idaho stop law (the BTA's 2009 effort to implement such a law in Oregon failed), or some other alternative? Should bicyclists more strictly adhere to the law if only to forestall motorists’ eternal complaining about “those law-breaking bicyclists,” since our casual attitude toward stopping always comes out as the first piece of evidence against us?

I know this discussion has only scratched the surface of the issues surrounding stop signs. I’m interested to hear your thoughts on the topic. Do you stop every time? Should you have to?

* We won’t even get into whether you have to put your foot down or if a track stand counts as a complete stop.

Stop sign image courtesy of


  1. Having rode in Idaho, and looking at their accident rates, I'd say yes to this.

  2. I can see that this is a law that could easily be abused. If cyclists can already get away with it, in most cases, then why make it law? By making it law, people would push the limits of the rolling stop and have to use their judgement (laws are usually made to protect those without judgement, ie helmets).

  3. I think that I see and hear better on the bike than in the car. Plus even at a slow roll I've got enough time to stop if need be. And I know I'm safer with my feet clipped into the pedals, I can sprint quickly. If I HAVE to stop, even with a track stand I can't sprint up to speed as fast, and I want to get out of the intersection as fast as possible.Putting a foot down, then clipping in, then getting up to speed takes a lot more time and puts me in the intersection for a longer time.Remember that the intersection is the dangerous area.
    Idaho law is look and slow through stop signs, stop, look, and go at lights. It really works well.
    gears to you...leo

  4. I no longer use the Burke Gilman, or atleast try to avoid it because of the stop sign thing. Bicyclists fly by while cars stop. No wonder there's animosity. This is sad, 'cause now I am back on the streets, and what is a trail for if not for non-motorized vehicles? There's a cop for people that mis-use the HOV lane. There's a cop for speeding in a school zone. Where is the cop for bicycles going thru a stop sign in the presence of a car sitting without a stop sign?? I don't care about momentum; think about the extra gas used to stop cars while bicycles go: is that environmentally correct? Phooey.

  5. This is a bit of a soapbox for me, so hopefully noone takes this personally....
    Loss of momentum or not, I always stop at stop signs and red lights. Yes, it's the law. But in addition to that, as a bicycle advocate I'd feel like a hypocrite going around town asking motorists to share the road with me, if I'm not willing to take responsibility and follow the law.
    Also, I often ride with my daughter, if we fly through stop signs I'm teaching her that we are above the law and can choose to follow it, if and when we choose.
    It's true what you said, that bicyclists flying through stop signs angers car drivers. It also angers me as a cyclist. It gives 'us' a bad name.
    I feel that if cyclists ride responsibility and respect the law and the car drivers, then the car drivers will respect them as well.
    We can't ask for equal rights on the road and then turn around and ignore the laws we don't like.
    With all that being said, I do think it would be great if the 'Idaho Law' was passed here.

  6. This question came up a lot when I was teaching, in Effective Cycling and other programs. I said, "I stop at least as much as I do in a car." I think other drivers would understand a slow roll, but blowing through without slowing down does nothing but antagonize anyone who sees it. Momentum is only a rationalization. Think how you would feel if motor vehicle drivers blew stop signs, rationalizing that they are saving fuel by not stopping. Or, if Tony Hayward said that British Petroleum felt justified in skipping required inspections because it would slow down completing the well.

  7. How about if we as cyclist make a full and complete stop just like cars as below.

  8. it's all about safety and the burden of safety is what should control traffic behavior. as a cyclist, we hear better, see better and are more sensitive to 7,800 pounds of waste rolling down the road. who has the most to lose in the event of contact? yes to the idaho law. people in their motorized wheelchairs will be pissed off no matter what. i am when i'm not on a bike! i'll be in a wheelchair soon enough!

  9. Unless there are absolutely no cars, I come to a full stop with one foot out of the clip and down on the ground. I think a rolling stop like a car would be o.k. in some circumstances. I say no to a new law. If we want the privileges of a car, we need to drive like one. My concern is safety and consistency. Mary had a good point...and I ask, would you want your child to ignore stop signs?